Between her knee-jerk dismissal of contemporary country in a recent New York Times feature and her apparent conviction that she's made a gospel record, Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis has set the bar high for her solo debut. Compared to allegedly prefab Nashville product, Rabbit Fur Coat is meant to be musically honest and spiritually nourishing. And it might be either or both, if it weren't also as padded as a Parton-impersonator's bustier. Four out of twelve tracks are throwaways, including an eight-line prelude to a three-minute drum solo, and an adequate reading of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle with Care," on which guest vocalists Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst, and Matt Ward indulge their super-group dreams.
The remaining two-thirds of the songs are neither country nor gospel, but semi-acoustic West Coast soft rock, with Saddle Creek scene-rats in place of Warner Bros. session cats. The underamped backings, deft but faceless, place the focus on Lewis's precise vocals, throaty or girly as required, and on those of Chandra and Leigh Watson, who evoke the "siren" scene from Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? every time they appear. The only thing more exposed than the voices are the songs, which is where the album stumbles. The title track successfully forces charged material--intergenerational seduction, cocaine--into a deceptively gentle 12-strophe ballad. But elsewhere, Lewis's gift for following a sharp line ("You can wake up younger under the knife") with a clunker ("You can wake up sounder if you get analyzed") nearly matches Lou Reed's.
These failures of craft are a shame, because Lewis's theme of religious ambivalence is rich, even brave. Before handclaps and the Watsons' beatific cooing overtake "The Big Guns," she sings, "I've won hundreds at the track, but I'm not betting on the afterlife," reversing Pascal's notion that you might as well believe that God exists, because if you don't, and he does, you're screwed. Lewis's stylistic choices may be retro, but her attitude toward faith isn't. She's fascinated by salvation, grace, and mercy, while remaining as suspicious of ceding control as any Woman in Rock--or in Anything Else--ought to be.
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