If one were to assign a single word to describe Jenny Lewis’ greatest strength, it would likely be “versatile.” Having honed an impeccable indie pop sound in Los Angeles’ Rilo Kiley, she’s proven herself adept at punchy power pop, rife with hooks and occasional forays into soulful balladry. With the aid of The Watson Twins, Lewis re-presented herself as a country-folk balladeer, heartbroken, and with a cynical take on religion. Of course, sometimes that push toward versatility can be as much a hindrance as a strength, as evident on some of Under the Blacklight‘s lesser moments. Then again, maybe I’ll just go ahead and blame Johnathan Rice for “Dejalo.”
On Lewis’ second solo album Acid Tongue, this time without The Watson Twins backing her lovely pipes, the California siren once again steps into a broad range of musical styles ranging from smoky, piano-based torch songs to fiery rock `n’ roll numbers, even finding her singing a duet alongside Elvis Costello (she did likewise on his The Delivery Man, a few years back). While she never seems content to stay in one place for too long, Lewis nonetheless finds somewhere interesting to go with each song, making Acid Tongue an exhilarating and engaging listen, if a clearly imperfect one.
In typical fashion, Lewis avoids opening with the biggest bang. Like “Silver Lining,” “It’s A Hit” or “The Good That Won’t Come Out,” “Black Sand” isn’t particularly the most energized or explosive of opening tracks, but it’s echo-laden piano and gorgeous string arrangements make it an instant favorite. “Pretty Bird,” meanwhile, has a dusty and ragged style about it, similar to the likes of Joe Henry’s low-key, bluesy rock. After being treated to a late nite one-two caress, however, Lewis pulls out the stops and goes nuclear on “The Next Messiah,” a blazing, eight minute rock `n’ roll colossus that separates into several movements, yet never lets off the snarling intensity.
Lewis returns to the country sweetheart sound of Rabbit Fur Coat on the title track, though its opening line—”I went to a cobbler to fix a hole in my shoe/ he took one look at my face and said `I can fix that hole in you‘”—is just a bit more hokey. That’s easily forgiven though, particularly when a meaty rocker like “See Fernando” is just around the corner. Unfortunately, Elvis Costello’s presence on “Carpetbaggers” is the least appealing part of the song, and this comes from someone who typically likes everything the guy does. One need only listen to the Dusty Springfield-meets-White Stripes swagger of “Jack Killed Mom” to be convinced that this headliner need no co-stars.
For better or for worse, but mostly for better, Jenny Lewis is a restless artist. Her wandering heart can’t be satisfied unless she finds somewhere new to take it, though it sometimes gets her into trouble. With Acid Tongue, however, she stomps out a clear path toward something special.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.