On Rilo Kiley's first two releases, partners-in-crime Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis went the Lennon/McCartney route and split the songwriting credits right down the middle.


Rabbit Punch

Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis goes solo.

On Rilo Kiley's first two releases, partners-in-crime Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis went the Lennon/McCartney route and split the songwriting credits right down the middle. It's a great way to run a business, especially when the owners' interests and goals remain evenly matched. And Sennett and Lewis appeared to want to dip their toes in the exact same pools on 2001's Take-Offs & Landings and its wheel-spinning follow-up, The Excecution of All Things: a lo-fi transposition of the Sun Studios sound with torch songs and twang and twee indie pop all rendered within the general framework of the midtempo ballad.

By the time Rilo Kiley reconvened for 2004's major-label More Adventurous, Sennett had recorded his first album as the Elected (see Talk Talk), a side project that also featured Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel. Sennett stayed within his own comfort zone, while Lewis got completely ripped out of hers—but the vinegar mixing in with dulcet tones is what makes More Adventurous the only Rilo Kiley record that really stands up to repeat listens. It certainly rendered the differences between Lewis' and Sennett's songwriting tacks more indelible—the spare acoustic ballad "Ripchord" (a Blake song) and the sweeping orchestral arrangement of "I Never" (a Jenny song) sound miles apart.

The strangest thing about Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love), a collection of songs Lewis began working on during the More Adventurous sessions that comes out Tues., Jan. 24, is that Sennett isn't on it. His spectral presence looms large, of course, and he's more or less responsible for pushing her in this direction—even the title of the Elected's first record, Me First, was a joking nudge to counter his jabs with an uppercut. But here's Lewis playing with the Rilo Kiley arithmetic—or at least, the soul half of the equation—surrounded by everyone else in the band's immediate circle. Ben Gibbard, M. Ward, and Conor Oberst pay off debts by joining hands on a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care." Two dudes from Maroon 5 accompany Lewis on a handful of tracks, while Rilo Kiley associates the Watson Twins (currently preparing a record of their own) sing backup on most of the record—and share a title credit.

Still, there certainly wouldn't have been anything like the record's title track with Sennett and the rest of Rilo Kiley involved. On "Rabbit Fur Coat," Lewis paints a vivid picture of her youth as a child actor ("a hundred-thousand-dollar kid") and her eventual estrangement from her drug- addicted mother ("I hear that she's putting that stuff up her nose"). It's a big step for Lewis to chip away at her own cool veneer and directly confront something more autobiographical—especially since she's been known to invoke the phrase "I don't recall" more often than the Iran-Contra hearings when asked to divulge details about her own personal life in interviews.

Interestingly enough, another song in the same highly confessional mode— "Somebody Else's Clothes," where she confesses weariness with "singing self- obsessed songs"—narrowly missed the final cut, which leaves "Rabbit Fur Coat" as the focal point of interest for critics eager to portray Rabbit Fur Coat as the key to (finally, maybe) understanding Jenny Lewis. And while the "vulnerable woman with skeletons in her closet" angle may be a refreshing change of pace from the "insouciant sex object" one invariably brought up in relation to More Adventurous (even the CD's booklet is all hips and thighs), it's a willful misrepresentation of what Rabbit Fur Coat is all about.

For one, Lewis remains a much better lyricist when she's writing in a character other than herself and doesn't become overly indebted to the use of first-person pronouns. And there's less mystery to Rabbit Fur Coat than there is to Lewis as a person/personality—it's the sound of someone on the verge of turning 30 (her milestone comes within days of the record's release), feeling like time is catching up with her, and trying to make sense of it. It's at turns frustrating and inspired, often in the same small space: "Run Devil Run" stinks as a vocal exercise but functions perfectly as a lead-in to the following track. "Born Secular" comes closer to capturing the overall Dusty in Memphis vibe than anything on More Adventurous, while "Happy" gets caught up in the sweetheart-of-the-rodeo listlessness that marred Rilo Kiley's early work. And the indie-rock all-stars on "Handle With Care" sound like they're having so much fun it makes me reconsider half the homicidal thoughts I've had about Oberst.

So maybe Lewis is right when she sings, "You are what you love/And not what loves you back." Rabbit Fur Coast certainly works as a catalog of her various passions and flights of fancy. Put it together with Sennett's second outing as the Elected, which also features Lewis and conveniently shares a release date, and you've got two complementary halves of a really terrific Rilo Kiley record. But Sennett doesn't look as fetching in a beret, which means that for now, all eyes are on Lewis. Handle her with care.


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