Jenny Lewis’ solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, abandons some of the cheekiness of her band Rilo Kiley and replaces it with a more soulful, mature voice. People seem shocked that Lewis has sojourned into singing country and not indie rock, but was it ever so cut and dry? Listen to Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous and the same twangy, upbeat southern roots bubble up from the speakers.
Yet the tone of Rabbit Fur Coat is certainly a new one for Lewis. The album has a timeless style, with its folksy production, full band and crooning melodies, all of which merit the comparisons to Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and Stephen Stills. The Watson Twins, the southern gospel singers backing Lewis, lend the album an authentic texture, filling the songs with lush harmonies without overwhelming them.
Is the record transparent in its faith to form? Not really. Lewis offers us a powerfully nuanced take on “white soul” that melts more than intrigues. Which is to say, the music retains the shrewd songwriting Lewis is known for, but the sound is far more visceral than cognitive. She tells stories of feminine decline, loneliness, love and shame; it’s an expansive, open epic of small and large tales – from waking up behind a bar to picking yourself out of the L.A. river. The lyrics therefore represent the struggle of the outsider. “I’m fraudulent, a thief at best/ A coward who paints a bullshit canvas.”
Lewis is produced warmer than in Rilo Kiley, giving her reverberating voice space to expand. Producer Connor Oberst (the hyped-up “Bright Eyes”) treats Lewis’s voice like a prized jewel – on Rabbit Fur Coat it is polished and displayed. “Melt Your Heart,” a whispered ballad that echoes Dylan or even Elliot Smith, is a haunting, hushed lullaby, but her lyrics suffer under Oberst’s production. Through such accessibility, the words come under scrutiny so as to become too self-aware – here, Rabbit Fur Coat is more preachy than poignant.
Of the title song, Lewis writes on her website, “The metaphor of the coat is the through-line of the record.” This acoustic waltz, which chronicles the story of a mother and daughter “of poor folk” certainly reflects the heart of the album. It’s because of this form of thoughtful confessional, demolished nostalgia and passionate confusion, presented in a sound both sweet and sorrowful, that the album ultimately glows. If Rilo Kiley made you blush, Jenny Lewis will make you plunge painfully in love.