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The Belle Brigade

This new L.A. combo finds well-traveled indie-scene drummer Barbara Gruska (who’s played with Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins) doing sunshiney, soul-infused folk-pop with her younger brother Ethan. Their handsome, self-titled debut is due out in April, and they’ll follow this small-room gig by opening for Grace Potter & the Nocturnals at Irving Plaza later this week. With Sneaky Legend, Noah Chernin, and Go Back to the Zoo.

Tue., March 8, 7:30 p.m., 2011

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MYSTIC RIVER

Conor Oberst, the pubescent brains behind Bright Eyes—that mopey wunderkind who had every teenager’s mother asking, “Are you sure you’re not depressed?”—is all grown up now, ditching his misery for a more laid-back sound on 2009’s Outer South. Oberst’s singing has become especially relaxed, even comfortable—a far cry from the wailing screams of Bright Eyes. The songwriting, though still scathing, possesses the off-handedness of an inside joke rather than the discomfort of an angst-filled projection. On “Nikorette,” when Oberst asks, “Will you talk me down if I get upset?” you can almost smell the shit-grin on his face. Discontent may have been the guiding light of Bright Eyes, but with the Mystic Valley Band, Oberst finally sounds like he’s having fun. With Jenny Lewis.

Sat., July 4, 3:30 p.m., 2009

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Jenny Lewis, Now With More Elvis Costello

At this point, it’s pretty hard to make music about the tension between sin and redemption without sounding hokey. That whole church thing had already been reinvented a zillion times (see: Cash, Cave, Kanye) before Jenny Lewis took a dusty side trip from Rilo Kiley and made 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat, a set of God-focused songs spiked with clever modern hiccups. Now, on Acid Tongue, she’s once again got one foot in a holy-water fount and the other in a hell-hole, howling for a savior and/or drug dealer.

The thing is, she’s really good at that stuff—better than she is at cooing in falsetto through the pair of down-tempo flimsies that start the record. “Black Sand” and “Pretty Bird” are throwaways that should’ve been buried near the end. The real fun starts with “The Next Messiah,” a thrilling, eight-and-a-half-minute revival-style rave-up electrified by guitar work from her boyfriend, Johnathan Rice. Lewis has help in other places, too: “Carpetbaggers,” a tune about ruthless temptresses, is a catchy duet with newfound fan Elvis Costello. Her sister Leslie Lewis sings on the live favorite “See Fernando.” Singer/actor Zooey Deschanel offers sensitive backing vocals on the oh-so-’70s love ballad “Tryin’ My Best to Love You.” And on the hymn-like title track and centerpiece, Jenny’s very own boy choir (including Rice and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson) adds gorgeous harmonies to a confessional chorus.

The whole thing was tracked live and unedited by computers, so you can hear exactly how it all went down. One minute, she’s leading her minions with total conviction; the next, her voice is cracking with nerves. Of course, subtle insecurity is part of Acid Tongue‘s charm. Jenny is a definitely a chosen one in the talent department, but she doesn’t really let on.

Jenny Lewis plays the Apollo Theatre October 4

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The Watson Twins’ Fire Songs

As fetching backups for Jenny Lewis’s faux–Loretta Lynn country-folk memoir/solo doo-dah-day Rabbit Fur Coat, the Watson Twins pretty much sabotaged their own debutante ball: The duo’s debut, Southern Manners (self-released in 2006 while touring with Lewis), unjustly fell to the wayside. Now, the raven-haired sisters from Kentucky (since ensconced in L.A.’s indie-polluted Silverlake district) return with an album that has none of Lewis’s snark and bite, but still packs plenty of emotional ruin. It’s also languid and dusty, but with a restrained use of pedal steel that’s not to be believed. Fire Songs isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s in the right ZIP code.

Yet it gets where it’s going to by circuitous routes. Clearly the sisters’ vocals are the main attraction—and there are sultry harmonies aplenty—but producers Russell Pollard and J. Soda don’t push them to the forefront. Instead, the Watsons fall into a pocket of pungent atmospherics: The bouncy pop piano that propels opener “How Am I to Be” leads later to a storm cloud of cellos on “Fall,” and then to swayback horns on “Map to Where You Are.” The songs keep sliding away from easy classifications: sunset folk-rock? Country lounge-core? True, Jenny Lewis would never muck around with a cliché like “I gotta dig a little deeper” and then pile on yet another groaner with “I think my time is now.” But then, Lewis picked that corny dud “Handle With Care” to cover, whereas the Watsons go with the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and turn it into a triumph. They slow it down, of course, and throw in a harmonica that, incredibly, doesn’t sound out of place or cheesy. The result is four minutes and change of sweet, burning seduction. Lewis had her turn, but now the Watson Twins deserve some recognition for their own happy doo-dah-day.

The Watson Twins play the Music Hall of Williamsburg July 10 and Mercury Lounge July 11

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Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight

Folks who lamented the death of Rilo Kiley in 2004, when the Saddle Creekers jumped to Warner Bros. and brushed against the pop they’d always coveted, will find little comfort in the band’s new album, but never mind them. Under the Blacklight is a brief and often bizarre record, jiggling with artificial rhythm and awash in backup singers imported from 1981. The breezy half-disco, barely avoiding chintz, affords Jenny Lewis’s warm, knowing voice more comfort than ever; lyrically, Lewis and bandmate Blake Sennett bathe in sunny sordidness, as cheerful about pornography and ephebophilia as about hookups and breakups. Even the old subjects are dirtied—as a sober surveyor of mating games, Lewis never wrote a better invitation than “My mama is an atheist/If I stay out late she don’t get pissed.”

The band’s pop judgment occasionally fails it. Opening the record by pilfering the famously dubious riff from “My Sweet Lord” is gutsy certainly and clever maybe, but it’s still a mistake: The arcane double entendres of “Smoke Detector” are like the language in those papers that pranksters pass off as postmodern manifestos. But Blacklight is never boring, which is what those of us who liked two-thirds of 2002’s The Execution of All Things expected this band to be by now, and its weakness isn’t the lyrics, the melodies, or Lewis’s newly liberated voice, but the production. There’s no nuance to the sound—it’s all surface, as flat and bright as Rilo Kiley think pop music is. Another album may find them excavating their new territory, but until then they’re lovely surveyors.

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The Fire This Time

As the only female-fronted band of significance to fit, even uncomfortably, under the emo umbrella, Brooklyn-via-Madison’s Rainer Maria have never quite caught the media-driven jet stream ridden by former touring partners Rilo Kiley, even though anyone drawn to Jenny Lewis’s fraught portrayals of relationships could find similar pleasures in those voiced by RM bassist-frontwoman Caithlin De Marrais. Some of this neglect stems from the band’s slow disengagement from anti-pop strictures: A talent for sustained tunes emerged on 2001’s A Better Version of Me, but it wasn’t until 2003’s outstanding Long Knives Drawn that singer-guitarist Kyle Fischer’s democratizing interjections were phased out, the better to focus on De Marrais’s glorious vocal belt. Catastrophe Keeps Us Together takes another step away from basement-show aesthetics, trading previous releases’ documentary feel for studio flash courtesy Daniel Lanois/Peter Gabriel engineer Malcolm Burn and (on two tracks) Peter Katis, who brings the huge to Interpol’s work.

At best, this amounts to presenting Fischer’s economical guitar parts in Unforgettable Fire widescreen on “Already Lost” and the prom-ready “Burn.” A delay-drenched take on Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is fresher than Lewis’s recent replication of “Handle With Care,” but elsewhere, clunky acoustic overdubs and vintage-keyboard loops sap the band’s hard-won power trio strengths—the waltz time snippet “Cities Above” (which appears twice) is pretty and creepy enough to make you wish they’d written a song over it. What hasn’t changed, though, is the band’s worldview. Quasi-titular opener “Catastrophe” may be a reworking of a 2000 B side, but the long American moment it describes hasn’t passed: “We’re the architects of the world/We’re taking it all apart.” That announcement of global responsibility and uncertainty shadows every song, and when De Marrais asks, “Where do you end and I begin?” on “Bottle,” there’s no doubt that the question isn’t just about what the last album called “the awful truth of loving.”


Rainer Maria play the Bowery Ballroom May 20 at 8, $15, boweryballroom.com.

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Mirror, Mirror

There is a story told of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall encountering one another in the ladies’ room of a Los Angeles bar. Recognizing each other in the large mirror above the sinks, they turn and face. Lewis speaks first: “If I believed in God, I would pray for her not to involve herself in human affairs.” Marshall responds, singing softly: “We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun, ere the bonnie boat was won, as we sailed into the mystic.” After a long moment, Marshall turns back to the mirror, and Lewis reaches for a paper towel. The two never speak again.

Like sisters, Lewis, newly solo, and Marshall, ever individual, are as different as they are alike. Jenny Lewis, 29, has acted in television and movies since 1986, and fronts the recently great Los Angeles foursome Rilo Kiley with a mix of bookish irony,
earnest questioning, and audition-cinching verve. NYC transplant Chan Marshall, 33, works as a fashion model when she’s not recording pristinely emotive blues-like disturbances, floundering through her famous anti-performances, or ambiguously claiming her total lack of calculation. Both share a charisma that seems at once affected and innate. But Lewis draws the spotlight to herself, while Marshall holds it in a sort of orbit, inhabiting the shadows.

The big news about Cat Power’s seventh album, The Greatest, is the Memphis Rhythm Band. Marshall brought in Al Green guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, his bassist brother Leroy, Booker T.’s drummer, and a handful of Memphis pros on horns, strings, and the rest in either a fit of daring or a casual change-up. Was she risking her delicate balance, or hiring a backbone? It’s said that Marshall inspires faith when in fact she requires it. But for those who love her shivery, wide-eyed insinuation, it hardly matters. Most players are overqualified to accompany Cat Power. Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder appeared on her last album, credited only by their initials and their profoundly understated, essentially invisible performances. Trumpet is tougher to hide.

The Greatest simply turns out to be Cat Power’s nicest. Mistress and band dilute one another, so that by the time you reach the midpoint of the album’s longest track and intended climax, the six-minute “Trapped in the Closet”–style relationship-web narrative “Willie,” the slack grooves, muttery vocals, and string-and-horn dressing aren’t just pillowy, they’re telling you it’s nap time. The best, most sinister tracks—stiff, slow-strummed “Hate,” darkly pulsing “Love & Communication,” tentative weepie “Where Is My Love?”—restore Marshall’s hollow, sensual scratch of a voice to the music’s center, where even she must know it belongs.

Chan Marshall’s voice is her mystery, same as it ever was. Jenny Lewis, meanwhile, either sold her soul at an L.A. intersection or hired a vocal coach sometime after Rilo Kiley’s coffeehouse-style debut album. More Adventurous, the group’s dizzyingly great 2004 breakthrough, found Lewis with a new set of wings, and her band with a new set of balls. On Rabbit Fur Coat, joined by backup singers the Watson Twins and various others, she barely breaks stride. Bookended by a cappella affirmations of her newfound voice—a spieling come-hither serenade, husky and silken by turns—the disc pairs breezy country pop with Lewis’s restless, somehow not totally annoying intertwining of contemporary concerns, encompassing alienation: from a runaway government, an absent though invoked God, distracted lovers, ambi-tious politicians/actors, overweening self- consciousness, rebellion itself. She goes there. It somehow makes perfect sense when she moves from anti-apathy anthem “The Big Guns,” with its foot-stomp rhythm and racing acoustic guitar, directly into the slinky, apathetic ballad “Rise Up With Fists!!” The smart cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ world-weary yet vigorous “Handle With Care,” featuring the typically underwhelming Ben Gibbard (he’s “tired”) and enthralling Conor Oberst (he “made a mess”), even suggests Lewis looks to draw others into her sharp mind. She knows like few others how sexy an intelligent woman’s navel can be.


Jenny Lewis plays Angel Orensanz Foundation February 5; Cat Power plays Town Hall February 14.

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With Arms Outstretched

It happens to tunesters I dig like the Old 97’s and to tunesters I disdain like Ben Folds: artists serenaded with their finest choruses by a fan base unknown to the culture at large. So there in the brutal crammed heat of the Knitting Factory August 4 was redheaded love object Jenny Lewis in short black summer dress and distressed maroon leg warmers, and her besotted cult was shouting: “Now some days they last longer than others/But this day by the lake went too fast/And if you want me you better speak up I won’t wait/So you better move fast.”

“With Arms Outstretched” asks for the treatment by climaxing with an in-studio sing-along on Rilo Kiley’s 2002 The Execution of All Things, where it’s a standout less catchy than “The Good That Won’t Come Out,” not performed at the Knit, or the encore-capping “A Better Son/Daughter.” And The Execution of All Things is only a run-up to More Adventurous, Rilo Kiley’s fourth longform on their fourth label, Rilo to Barsuk to Saddle Creek to Brute/Beaute, distributed and in part promoted by Warners, but owned by the band in one of the uncountable variations on indie/not-indie to arise since the biz cried wolf. Saddle Creek bowed out even though their guy produced the record, so this indie band, led by showbiz kids whose intimacy with Hollywood started before they could sign contracts, are bidding to “go pop” and maintain control simultaneously.

The Execution of All Things has sold 30,000, enough to fill 100 Knits with young seekers shouting about days by the lake. Should a band tour those theoretical Knits assiduously, it’s also enough to keep four young musicians alive—especially if they have residuals coming in like Lewis and her sometime songwriting partner, guitarist Blake Sennett, whose acting careers are what’s looking residual now. To borrow the studio term that captures actually existing pop so well, Rilo Kiley don’t limit their music—dynamically and also thematically, their records have range. On the indie spectrum, however, they calibrate conventional. Sonically, they’re clean and not arch about it—Lewis’s voice strong and clear, the tunes and arrangements straightforward, the lyrics comprehensible. In short, the band submerge their substance and grit—but both are there. Most song bands are so static that at Southpaw last year I was surprised to see them rock, emote, trade instruments, squeeze off noises and licks and solos. Similarly, the neat, orderly sound of Lewis’s lyrics is undercut by the complex, dirty world their meanings engage—although in a subculture where obscurantism is expected, that they have meanings at all suggests why they sound the way they do. It’s a formal commitment. Rilo Kiley want to be understood.

The 2001 debut album Take Offs and Landings is typical high-indie—thin, smart, tuneful, and thin, with protracted intros, four Sennett vocal leads signifying likable ineptitude, and at least two exceptionally acute dying-relationship songs. But “Go Ahead” and “Bulletproof” are no sharper than “Capturing Moods” and “My Slumbering Heart” on The Execution of All Things, which has bigger themes to conquer. Its greatest songs transmute self-help axioms via some alchemy of recapitulation, dramatization, and good cheap hook. “A Better Son/Daughter” should be licensed to the American Psychological Association for free downloading by depressives and their co-dependents.

Lewis is such a wet dream for indie boys—pretty, bright, likes men, says “fuck” a lot—that I underrated The Execution of All Things. Its basic pleasures as purely aesthetic as pop gets, More Adventurous makes that impossible. Think career albums by artists as different on the surface as Luna, Fountains of Wayne, and Lucinda Williams. All feast on songcraft—not the sound of the music or the intensity of the vision, but the adroit intermesh of fetching tune and well-turned lyric. And there won’t be a better song album in 2004—I’d bet my vote on it.

Everything else depends on Lewis’s singing, always lean and lissome (she was principal backup for the Postal Service), but now also big and textured, breathy and kind and emotive, live-er, acted with a grasp of the permeable boundary between persona and character. The melodies are beefed up with the kind of simple handclaps-to-horns touches puritans know to be mammon’s work. And crisply enunciated lines like “We could be daytime drunks if we wanted,” “And if I get pregnant/I guess I’ll just have the baby,” and “Your legs aren’t taking any more requests” promise narratives that materialize when you concentrate, as seems meet once you’ve absorbed the force of three Sennett-tuned winners: the all’s-unfair “Does He Love You?,” the multiple-p.o.v. “A Man/Me/Then Jim,” and especially “Portions for Foxes,” with its trenchant pessimism and undeniable, irresistible chorus: “And it’s bad news/Baby I’m bad news/I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news.”

That’s just track three, though, right after one that ends, “Your husband will never leave you/He will never leave you for me.” On this album, Lewis has farther to grow. “I can take my clothes off/I cannot fall in love,” she sang on “The Frug,” which kicked off Rilo’s out-of-print 1999 Imaginary Friend EP, a debut lifted well above Take Offs and Landings by several moderately harrowing teen-sex songs. Ever since, Lewis’s femme fatale act has fed into the wet dream—she’ll be the top, rendering male fear of commitment moot. But here, heeding the moral lessons of “The Good That Won’t Come Out” and “A Better Son/Daughter,” she puts that behind her. In the title tune and the soul-styled “I Never,” she can fall in love, and wants nothing better. And though the three songs at the end lay out downsides of that life-leap, they admit no regrets. Not just songcraft—through-structured songcraft. To use the cant term, mature. The clincher is the only track, excluding Sennett’s token indie-rock cameo, that isn’t about love. It’s about politics—now that’s mature. For relevant details, well, you know what they say in the funny papers—see “Hitting Back“.

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Hitting Back

“Any chimp can play human for a day,” More Adventurous begins, and if you think you know which chimp, you’re right, and if you think Bush-is-stupid is way off-message by now, you’re also right. But Jenny Lewis isn’t stupid, so she massages the cliché, as in, “But it’s a jungle where war is made/And you’ll panic and throw your own shit at the enemy.” The chimp turned “sheep in wolf’s clothing” gets a 10-line verse, followed by another about suburban smugness that segues self-critically—she’s “not buying it,” but she’ll “try selling it”—into a nine-liner about sorority girls, their fellow Greeks the tragedians, getting paid, writer’s block, the “sin when success complains,” and seeing what sticks: “Gotta write a hit/I think this is it/It’s a hit.” Blam—finally, the chorus. The music’s been building—marker riff, drum accent, keyb chimes—and here a horn flourish gets us to “And if it’s not” before a femme chorus helps her repeat “it’s a holiday for a hanging” 4X and cap it off with “shoo-bop shoo-bop my baby.” Now what’s this? An 11-line verse about . . . executions, and pardons that never come from the man “upstairs.” Who was it who got to enter the kingdom of God? Doesn’t anyone remember? Chimp becomes sheep-wolf becomes camel.

Depending on your definition, “It’s a Hit” may not be a hit. But More Adventurous will top 30,000, and Warners will underwrite a video. Song of the year.