- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins

Rabbit Fur Coat

Team Love

Jenny Lewis is officially hot stuff. At the end of last year, readers of the music gossip Web site Stereogum voted overwhelmingly to name her Miss Indie Rock 2005. But the photogenic Miss Lewis, a former child actress and current frontwoman for the zippy indie rock outfit Rilo Kiley, isn’t just another guitar-slinging cutie.

Aided by the soulful backup singing of the Watson Twins, Miss Lewis’ first solo album, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” confirms it’s as much a pleasure to listen to her as to look at her.

Her album was released by Team Love, the personal label of indie folk wunderkind Conor Oberst. Like Mr. Oberst, the singer-songwriter behind Bright Eyes, Miss Lewis gained early recognition on the artist-run collective label Saddle Creek, based in the unlikely alternative music hotbed of Omaha, Neb.

Saddle Creek, which released Rilo Kiley’s second album, has garnered national attention for sprouting such hipster luminaries as Cursive and the Faint. However, Miss Lewis’ solo work is as reserved as those acts were raucous. Where they offered aggression and angst, she weaves a simple tapestry of affectionate folk musings — a slight, sweet storybook of an album.

Miss Lewis milks her connections with indie rock royalty for all they’re worth on one of the album’s standout tracks, “Handle With Care.” The recording, which covers the ‘80s rock supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, gathers its own crowd of dreamy alt rock heartthrobs, including Mr. Oberst and Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard.It’s more up-tempo and immediate than the slickly recorded original, with sharp snare accents and sparkling finger-picked guitar rhythms, but it still channels the same anti-commercial, rock-‘n’-roll-survivor ethos.

Taken as a whole, “Rabbit” is more placid than Miss Lewis’ previous work, supplanting Rilo Kiley’s brassy rock hooks with a cozy intimacy. Even so, the album includes a few peppier tracks.

“You Are What You Love” skips through a litany of polysyllabic confessions, and “The Big Guns” is a clap-happy barn-dance jig propelled by speedy acoustic strumming.

The Watson Twins add to the album’s down-home flavor with rousing, gospel-influenced choruses. “Happy” glows with the candlelit mood of whispered secrets between longtime friends.

In the song’s simple, unadorned chorus, Miss Lewis wonders just what it takes to be happy. The album finishes with a drifting a cappella reprise of that chorus, suggesting that this central question — how does one achieve happiness? — is left unanswered.

For all her soul-searching, Miss Lewis is never pushy or histrionic. “Rabbit Fur Coat” is blanketed by a gentle spirit that covers all but a hint of the melancholy and weariness underneath. Rather than coerce her listeners’ emotions, she softly cajoles them with a series of literate musical vignettes.

Reticent and unassuming, Jenny Lewis may not be out to steal anyone’s heart, but after one spin through “Rabbit Fur Coat,” listeners will be lining up to hand them over all the same.

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