Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins

Rabbit Fur Coat

(Team Love; 2006)

By David Greenwald | 26 January 2006

Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat is her first solo album and her first release for pal and former labelmate Conor Oberst’s label Team Love. And, if anything, it’s a companion album to Oberst’s country homage I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, except that Lewis can actually sing. She also has a better grasp of her own limitations, and unlike Bright Eyes’ “Road To Joy” (aping Dylan is one thing, but Beethoven?), she never bites off more than she can chew. Rabbit Fur Coat is an album of easy strumming and likeable melodies, a PG distillation of vintage country influences and the Watson Twin’s spot-on gospel harmonies.

The production is nice and warm, with Lewis’ vocals front and center. It sounds more like a tribute than the real thing, though, and she makes no secret of the pop aspirations under the cover of veteran producer Mike Mogis’ reverb. In that sense, “Rabbit Fur Coat” may be a vanity project--but thankfully Lewis’ vanities tend towards acoustic guitars and great harmonies.

The album is full of songs about God and gambling about as serious as Judy Garland wrinkling her nose in The Wizard Of Oz and repeating “there’s no place like home!” Lewis wondering what’ll happen if “God’s not there” in “The Charging Sky” produces about the same effect--a quizzical moment with undercurrents of disaster delivered with a smile regardless. The lyrical high point comes with a self-deprecating reference in the otherwise ignorable title track to her band Rilo Kiley’s abandonment of Saddle Creek Records to jump to the majors – a lyric made smug and secure by the release of this album on the Oberst-operated Team Love. Give Lewis credit for putting her money where her mouth is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jenny and her twins sell a few more copies than the last Rilo disc.

The Watson Twins appear on about half the songs, improving them substantially; Lewis can’t carry songs like the title track and “It Wasn’t Me” by herself under the weight of stale chord progressions and a tortoise-like pace. On the other hand, there’s the cover of the Travelling Wilburies’ gem “Handle With Care” that Lewis (singing George Harrison’s part) performs with Oberst, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and M. Ward. Gibbard’s nervous, white-knuckled delivery is overbearing in the face of Ward’s smoky baritone, much less Roy Orbison’s smooth original performance. Oberst, fittingly, fares no worse than Dylan.

If the stubborn “Big Guns” is the high point of the first half, “Born Secular” is where the second side peaks. It opens with a drum machine set to a waltz rhythm, but before the incongruity has a chance to sink in, Lewis is already reaching for the clouds with a voice as forlorn as the sky is blue. If she coaxed this much emotion out of every track, we’d have a classic on our hands, but there’s nothing wrong with being likeable--just ask Dorothy.