Jenny Lewis, the red-haired icon of style and sly, heartbreaking lyrics is appropriately the child of two Las Vegas musicians. This entry into the world via desert sands and lounge acts infuses all of her work with a dusty, Americana tone, and a vocal intimacy with the listener that has made her such a compelling and enduring voice in the American indie rock scene. Lewis dramatically staked her claim to a place in the indie canon with her 2006 release, Rabbit Fur Coat. Supported by the Watson Twins, the album is a soul and country-tinged journey through the themes that fascinate Lewis and it marked a dramatic, and necessary, departure from her first musical success.
That first success – at least in the music world, she had been a child actress in the 1980s – was with her band Rilo Kiley, formed in 1998 and comprised of Pierre De Reeder, Jason Boesel and Blake Sennett. Lewis and Sennett began trading lead vocal responsibilities, with Lewis’ vulnerable and charismatic vocals gradually carrying most of an album. Rilo Kiley’s fourth album in 2004, More Adventurous, demonstrated a step forward for the band, particularly with Lewis’ vocal performance. Shortly after, fellow indie rocker Conor Oberst approached Lewis with the invitation to record a solo album, which would become Rabbit Fur Coat.
While Coat is a notable entry into the world of solo recording for Lewis, it still feels like an easing away from life with Rilo Kiley. Lewis is assisted and backed up by several other established indie acts, thereby giving Lewis the band atmosphere she knows so well, while finally spotlighting her own lyrics and vocals for an entire album. Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst and M. Ward assist on the record, with Lewis sharing the title credit with The Watson Twins who back Lewis’ already fine and crystal vocals with their own ephemeral harmonies.
Leigh and Chandra Watson provide a necessary texture to the album, supporting Lewis in songs that require the power of more than one voice. Memorably on the album cover the Twins bookend Lewis in a hallway like some indie-vintage version of the Shining twins. In an aural parallel to that look, their vocals contribute to the haunted and haunting nature of Coat, supporting Lewis’ lyrics and filling in the sound on nearly every track, while bringing their distinctive Kentucky-folk flavor to Lewis’ Southwestern-rock style.
Rabbit Fur Coat opens with the plucking of a guitar, followed by Lewis and the Watson Twins sing-chanting “run, devil, run” until their voices lift up and harmonize into “from love.” The opening track flows seamlessly into the slightly fuller and up-tempo sound of “The Big Guns,” plunging us delicately, and then all at once, into this new world.
The atmosphere of a Southern religious experience from the first song is replicated in the second with references to a “him,” “the afterlife” and “forgiveness,” followed by the addition of a thumping beat, like the stamping of desperate feet praying for the oft-mentioned “mercy.” These religious word choices continue throughout the album, alongside the general feeling of someone praying and working desperately to escape the shaggy demons that hound them.
“Rise Up with Fists!!”, the third track and first single, is a familiar Lewis admittance of huge personal flaws that threaten to lead you into utter defeat at any moment, delivered with such empathy, beauty, and humor, that you don’t get nearly as sad as you should. Lewis’ character vulnerability within vocal strength is most evident in a few choice lines that hit you in the gut, notably: “but I still believe I will rise up with fists, and I will take what’s mine.” The desperation to believe this to be true is evident in her performance and the repeated words and tangled echoes of the Watson Twins behind her.
From there we settle into the meat of the album, which Lewis populates with her distinct characters and voices. There are the up-tempo yarns about everyday life in “The Charging Sky” and “You Are What You Love,” paired next to the slower and more melancholy “Happy,” “It Wasn’t Me” and “Melt Your Heart.” Those three songs trade out the boisterous energy of the record for an introspective look at how someone can respond to love of various kinds, and ultimately be helpless against larger forces of life. The album flows seamlessly from rollicking, to heartfelt, to melancholy and back again which helps Lewis’ reckoning with larger forces – whether religion, love, or inner demons – go down easily and enjoyably.
The title track is a true tall tale, told straight through with enough clarity and metaphor in order to remain understandable but still dreamy and intangible. It’s not something you understand literally, but emotionally. The final lines bring the story back in a circle in a classic “Cat’s in the Cradle” fashion. This song especially underlines Lewis’ inspirations from the 1970s singer-songwriter heyday, as well as her ability to reinvigorate the appreciation for that kind of musicianship with her own obvious skills.
The catharsis of the album is reached in “Born Secular.” A continuation of the “Rabbit Fur Coat” emotional storytelling, the song is the longest on the album and abandons lyrics halfway through. Before it does so Lewis and the Watson Twins deliver simplistically heartbreaking lines:
“God goes where he wants, and who knows, where he is not, not in me. God works in mysterious ways, and God gives, and then he takes, from me.”
The wrenching performance of the word “takes” is the reverse of Lewis’ earlier empowerment through the promise to “take what’s mine” in “Fists!!” This song brings the religious tone as well as the themes of personal loss and desperation to a head. Lewis and the Twins’ vocals intertwine with each other at the beginning, and then become their own significant thread of the tapestry, alongside an ambling and fevered drumming that gradually fades away.
The album closes with Lewis’ “so happy…” wish from the earlier track “Happy,” repeated and echoed alongside the lonely clacking of wood blocks, like a ticking clock on her own mortality and eventual face-off with The Big Guns.The album has come full circle, in the way that many Lewis characters often find themselves in a loop of attempting and failing to improve, but continuing to persist in hoping for a change.
Lewis’ songwriting skills, and attention paid to certain themes and personalities, was already glimpsed within her work with Rilo Kiley. However, with Coat she was finally given full reign to craft those stories how she wanted, and to created a soundscape that is unique to her own mind and heart as a writer and singer. Coat was praised by fans and critics alike when released, and definitively stated that Lewis was a person to watch in the American music scene. Rilo Kiley only released one more album in 2007, and disbanded in 2011. Lewis has continued to work and release solo and group albums that are each admirably distinct, yet joined together by their Lewis craftsmanship. Yet, even eleven years on from release, Lewis’ first solo record remains a breath of fresh air that proved to be a monumental step forward in a fine career.