On Fingers Broken Long Ago: a Jenny Lewis Retrospective

Jenny Lewis

Let's get together and talk about the modern age.

In 1978, harmonica player Eddie Gordon walks out on his Las Vegas family band, primarily a duo with wife Linda, called Love's Lounge. Sometimes Leslie, their eldest daughter, gets roped in to perform too. But most of the time she's upstairs in the hotel room, where a plastic "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door handle keeps her and little sister Jennifer sequestered in their own, private backstage party. Linda packs up and leaves Vegas, takes the girls to a town in the San Fernando valley, ekes out a living between waitressing and welfare. Not that it's what keeps food on the table at home; Jenny's been the breadwinner since pre-school. She's a child actor.

It's mostly cameos and made-for-TV films, and her career is bright without ever becoming stellar. At 13, Corey Haim hands her a cassette with Run DMC on one side and Beastie Boys on the other, and music begins to break up the slow days and nights between studio sets. She spends a lot of time hanging out at industry parties, bumping Cokes with the other kids from TV. One of them is a boy called Blake Sennett, best known for his roles in Nickelodeon's Salute Your Shorts and ABC's Boy Meets World. By the time Blake and school friend Pierre de Reeder decide to form a band in 1998, the former claims to have written about 60 songs with Jenny. He offers her a role in his new band, as backing singer. She wants to be the lead singer instead. Jenny wins. She wants to call the band Love's Lounge, in honour of her parents. He doesn't like it, and proposes Rilo Kiley. Blake wins that one.

The band put out their first EP (initially eponymous, though by its third release in 2001, becoming The Initial Friend), and it's cute as hell. There's a hilariously high-camp number called "The Frug", complete with hand-claps and barbershop vocals, and another one called "Glendora", which sets a thousand teenage voices breaking with the line, "And would you fuck me? Cos I'd fuck me." The whole thing's kind of kitsch, and by the time the former track has a super-kitsch video to mark its inclusion on a film soundtrack, the band seem increasingly set on re-writing The Cardigans' "Lovefool" until they get a hit of their own. A debut album proper arrives in the form of Take Offs and Landings, a mostly sunny burst of country-tinged indie pop. Only "Pictures of Success" really hints at a darker spirit, touching on the pressure to succeed, and the blessed relief of death that beckons after.

In 2002, Rilo Kiley release The Execution of All Things, and it's pretty much the greatest indie rock album to come out of America that decade. (Not that you'll find this author banging on about it, because he's far too professional to just crowbar references in to pretty much every article he writes.) For one thing, they sound like an actual rock band, in a way that Blake and drummer Jason don't really capture again until they get The Elected going. And the words. Oh, the words! "The Good That Won't Come Out" immediately marks Jenny out as a lyricist of distinction, and she's certainly in fine company; the band are signed to Omaha's Saddle Creek by this point, and both Cursive's Tim Kasher and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst make contributions on the record. Jenny also writes about the divorce of her parents on "And That's How I Choose To Remember It", a song unconventionally split into snippets that appear throughout the album. It remains an oddly uplifting piece, however; the classic rock riff-out that builds into the crescendo of "My Slumbering Heart" is sheer, dumb joy, with both Jenny and Blake singing the line "It just feels good to be next to you" like they mean it.

Perhaps it's a slightly tragic snapshot now, because the pair end their romantic relationship not long after the album lands. The band put out their bleakest, angriest (and possibly best) track ever, "Jenny, You're Barely Alive", for a Saddle Creek compilation, and it looks like it could all go a bit Fleetwood Mac. They survive nonetheless, and indeed flourish: More Adventurous arrives two years later, and Rilo Kiley flirt with something approaching mainstream commercial success. "Portions For Foxes" is a bona fide hit, bringing Jenny's increasingly sharp lyrics to the fore ("And the talking leads to touching, and the touching leads to sex, and then there is no mystery left...") while the band hit their critical sweet spot between alternative and pop. Songs like "Does He Love You?" and "Love and War (11/11/46)" demonstrate a progression towards lengthier, story-based songwriting, and "It's a Hit" even takes a decisive swipe at George W. Bush, busy forging his odorous legacy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2006, Jenny steps out alone on Rabbit Fur Coat, flanked only by The Watson Twins on backing vocals. It's a return to a more country and Americana sound, and actually kind of funny in places (assisted by a video for the wonderful "Rise Up (With Fists!!)" featuring comedian Sarah Silverman). A year later, the world is gifted what would turn out to be Rilo Kiley's final record, Under The Blacklight, and it's probably for the best. This record steers the indie band towards pop, disco, and blue-eyed soul, and although there are some notable clangers therein, the silky strut of "Silver Lining" and "Give a Little Love" prove hard to resist entirely. A few years pass before Rilo Kiley's time of death is finally called. But Jenny's far from finished.

A second solo album, and the first to go out under her name alone, arrives in 2008. Acid Tongue is yet another departure, going for a decidedly classic rock sound, and a beautifully stripped-back affair after the excesses of her former band's swan song. It's the kind of record you could imagine Elvis Costello turning up on, so it's less surprising when he actually does on "Carpetbaggers", a song that Jenny's boyfriend Johnathan Rice wrote for the Rabbit Fur Coat tour to provide an uptempo number for live performances. There are even cameo appearances for sister Leslie and father Eddie, which become all the more bittersweet when he passes away two years later.

The break-up of Rilo Kiley and the death of her father marked different endings in Jenny's life, and though she continues to collaborate with her partner as Jenny and Johnny, most of the residual grief is channelled into The Voyager, an album five years in the making that finally lives up to some of those '70s soft rock comparisons. The video for "She's Not Me" depicts Jenny dressed up as a number of her childhood acting roles (including that Golden Girls scene), and if it's hilarious to watch, perhaps it's also comforting that she can laugh about the past. Her parents continue to provide a source of frustration, but also inspiration, as she tells The Independent: "I just don't know them very well. And I'm still trying to understand what happened [with the divorce] and why. It's this blank slate, I can't even remember what happened. But for some reason, these two people are so incredibly strange and funny and beautiful and messed up, that I want to keep writing about them... and maybe figure out who I am in the process." It's a testament to the power of Jenny Lewis' songwriting that, in doing so, she helps the rest of us figure that out too.

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  1. On Fingers Broken Long Ago: a Jenny Lewis retrospective | Loud and Bright - 23/03/2016

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