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Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat

Released on Team Love, 1/24/06

There are a couple things you can count on from Jenny Lewis' primary act Rilo Kiley -- insanely addictive pop hooks, underlying traces of irony and the band's centerpiece: Lewis' oh-so-sweet voice. On her mellow country-tinged solo debut, Lewis makes an extraordinary and beautiful record. It departs from the idiosyncratic pop structures that have made Rilo Kiley an indie mainstay, but maintains that slightly cynical wink-nudge that fits Lewis' honeyed vocals so perfectly.

On Rabbit Fur Coat Lewis sounds better than ever, with arresting vocals that fit nicely in the soul-twang arena. She tells vulnerable and semi-autobiographical tales on ballads (like the gorgeous title track), hymns (album opener "Run Devil Run") and bouncy Americana tunes questioning religion, politics and identity ("The Charging Sky"). With a more sparse production ethic than Rilo Kiley, Lewis' voice is truly center stage and, per usual, leaves you addicted and just a little bit helpless.

The Watson Twins, gospel singers from Kentucky who appear on the cover in a photo nod to "The Shining" provide hauntingly beautiful harmonies throughout the album, an extremely wise addition and sometimes necessary layer. Lewis' lyrics don't always live up to her pipes, but they leave a lasting impression nonetheless. On the album's best track, the catchy self-affirmation anthem, she laments: "when you wake up behind the bar/trying to remember where you are/having crushed all the pretty things" before reminding us that she "still believes/and will rise up with fists to take what's mine mine mine". We're all hers by that point. The irony runs so thick at times that Lewis sings the track "Happy" with a wail that hints at enough sadness to make you wonder.

Also worth mentioning is the Traveling Wilburys' cover "Handle With Care", where Lewis is joined by friends Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service), Bright Eyes and M. Ward. It's the album's most fun track and a treat to hear the male trio's distinct voices circling around Lewis'.

The punch and panache provided by Lewis' Rilo Kiley bandmates and co-songwriter Blake Sennett (busy releasing his own album with side project The Elected) is occasionally missed, but Lewis keeps things interesting enough -- Rabbit Fur Coat just requires a much closer listen to get there.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars