Jenny and Johnny

I'm Having Fun Now

(Warner Bros.; 2010)

By Lindsay Zoladz | 2 September 2010

The most enthusiastic compliment I can muster for Jenny and Johnny’s first album, I’m Having Fun Now, is that you’re better off listening to it instead of the last She & Him record. Or the first She & Him record, for that matter. The comparison might seem reductive and lazy, and, to be sure, it is—admittedly triggered by the cheeky gender politics and cheekier (though in one case, implied) ampersands of their monikers—but to me these records are also linked by a bland flavor of disappointment: they each promise some sort of playful, pseudo-Edenic sparring (or, at the very least, an exploration of some sort of sexual tension) on which they don’t ever really deliver. Jenny and Johnny (girlfriend/boyfriend singer-songwriters Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice) have penned eleven tunes that aren’t miles away from Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward’s blissfully prelapsarian, pre-shrunk cotton pop, but, in this euphonic doubles match, Jenny and Johnny ultimately emerge victorious for the same reason that the Satan scenes in Paradise Lost are more interesting than the God ones: there is just a lot more serpent imagery on their record.

This album serves as another stone in the road to Jenny Lewis’s gradual maturity, a road which has been clunky at best. After putting out a few good records with Rilo Kiley, the last album she recorded with the band contained a rather garish single appropriately titled “The Moneymaker,” and Lewis’s first solo album contained a Traveling Wilburys cover that cast, with questionable bravado, Ben Gibbard as Roy Orbison. With things like that in mind, it’s been increasingly easy for people to dismiss Lewis as too manicured, too polished, too primed in her characteristic flat, sardonic pout. What said people seem too ignore is that Lewis doesn’t have a Great Voice so much an acute self-awareness about how she doesn’t have one, and thus a rare and occasionally brilliant knack for writing about her own sadness, failures, and neuroses with an almost disarming sense of detachment (all of which fit best with her earlier, post-adolescent songwriting). There is, behind the hardened pout, the lingering promise of a songwriter once responsible for hauntingly honest pouts, like the emotional masthead from The Execution of All Things (2002): “The lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap and it teases you for weeks in its absence.”

I’m Having Fun Now doesn’t quite make good on the promise, though it starts out strong. Among the album’s highlights are “My Pet Snakes” and “Scissor Runner,” the latter of which features Jenny saying to Johnny with a smirk, “I’ll forgive you if I outlive you”—it’s one of the few moments that smacks of honesty. Rice’s contributions to the album feel minor and dwarfed by Lewis’s persona; he sounds a little like Mark Lanegan without the gravel, which is to say, without the intrigue. Even in the moments when he’s singing lead—as on the verses of “Committed”—Lewis’s backing vocals outshine him. I’m Having Fun Now has its share of infectious hooks (“Animal” bursts into a catchy chorus; “While Men Are Dreaming” is Jenny at her saccharine best), but it has just as many moments of mediocrity. As a whole, it’s not consistently buoyant enough to be a good pop record, and the politics that weigh down its middle section aren’t sharp enough to make it into anything more than a middle section weighed down by some obvious politics.

At the risk of committing the venial music critic sin of faulting this record for everything it’s not, doesn’t all this bland he-said/she-said rock make you yearn for something a little bit more interesting, more biting? For some honest to goodness sass? Or at least some sort of playful provocation with the gender stereotypes at which their name seems to hint? (Jenny, Johnny: for an example of how it’s done, see the Vaselines’ “You Think You’re A Man”—and to think they didn’t even need an ampersand in their name for people to get what they were doing.) I’m certainly not going to begrudge a good old fashioned pop song, of which I’m Having Fun Now has a few, but the apple’s been eaten, nobody remembers what Eden was like, and there’re serpents are all over the damn place. Which means we’re allowed to look like we’re having a little more fun than this.