Friday, February 03, 2006

Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett Make Beautiful Music... Apart

The Elected - Sun, Sun, Sun (Sub Pop)

Jenny Lewis With The Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)

I'm not a Rilo Kiley fan. Not gonna pretend to be either. Together, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett annoy me. The quality of their music is wildly inconsistent and, let's face it, a little too precious for its own good. But split these former lovebirds up and listen in awe as they bloom into brilliant singer-songwriters with distinct personalities.

I'm a huge fan of Sennett's side project, the Elected. Me First, their debut album, made my top ten list last year. I've listened to it many times since its release and haven't tired of it. If I had to make a list of my favorite songs, "Greetings in Braille" would be on there somewhere. Me First is a nighttime album. Mike Mogis and Jimmy Tamborello added just the right flourishes to Sennett's songs to make them the perfect soundtrack to a sleepless night.

With Sun, Sun, Sun, the Elected have now made an album that I can listen to during the day. It's a more polished affair, drawing its inspiration from classic rock albums of the '70s. Sennett is still singing about longing and heartache, but he's doing it while basking in the California sunshine. It calls to mind both Jackson Browne and the Eagles if they joined forces with Elliott Smith. This is a solid piece of work. Addictive and highly recommended.

Although Jenny Lewis isn't absent from Sun, Sun, Sun (she shares songwriting credit with Sennett on two cuts and lends backing vocals on the gorgeous "It Was Love"), Sennett is nowhere to be found on Lewis's solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat.

My favorite film of all time is Five Easy Pieces, in which Jack Nicholson plays a piano prodigy slumming it as a redneck oil rig worker. The soundtrack, which I found on LP recently in a local record shop, features a number of songs by Tammy Wynette. Rabbit Fur Coat reminds me a lot of that film and those Wynette songs. A photo inside the booklet could have been a still from the film. Jenny, shoeless, strolls down an aisle in a grocery store carrying a gallon of milk. She's wearing a waitress uniform.

I had no idea what to expect when I first popped it in. Based on my Rilo Kiley feelings, expectations weren't high. But by the end of the day, I'd listened to the album four times and gone on line and ordered a 180 gram vinyl copy from Team Love. It's the kind of album that you just know is going to sound even better spinning on a turntable.

I already mentioned Tammy Wynette, so it should be clear that this is a country album. Throw Hank Williams and Dolly Parton into the mix and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this sounds like. Mike Mogis produced the bulk of the tracks, giving the album a warm and spacious feel. M. Ward, who I'm a fan of, produced some of the more sparse tracks. The Kentucky bred Watson twins are a big presence here, backing Lewis up on nearly every song.

A lot has already been written about the cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care," which includes Miss Lewis, Connor Oberst, Ben Gibbard, and M. Ward sitting in for George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. Like the original supergroup, this is a gimmick. But it's a gimmick that works. It's the one song on the album that diverges from the intensely personal songs Jenny is singing, but it has a lot of charm and its fun. And you know what? At the point in the album that it arrives, immediately following the haunting title track, Jenny has earned the company.

Rabbit Fur Coat is the first great album of 2006. Listening to Rilo Kiley, I never had any idea who Jenny Lewis was. Now I do. Pleased to meet you.


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