- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Indie rock’s reigning queen, Jenny Lewis, makes her solo debut tonight at the Birchmere. Well, almost solo: she’ll have gospel twins Chandra and Leigh Watson backing her up on vocals.

Gospel? From someone whose band Rilo Kiley opened for Coldplay at Nissan Pavilion last fall, and who co-wrote a song titled “The Absence of God”?

Believe it, brothers and sisters. On her country-fried debut, “Rabbit Fur Coat” (Team Love Records), Miss Lewis locates her inner Loretta, Patsy and Dolly, flaunts her weaknesses and testifies as only a doubting sinner can. And away from the boys and the electric guitars (they’re largely confined to one track), her voice gets to range from world-weary to ethereal.

The result is some surprisingly non-retro Americana, aside from the sparse opener “Run Devil Run,” which sounds like an outtake from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

Nor are the lyrics overly self-conscious or arty, although “Rise Up With Fists!!” comes out muddled. (At least the Watson Twins’ refrains sound lovely.)

In musing on God in “The Charging Sky,” Miss Lewis half-jokingly takes Pascal’s Wager — the notion that we gain more by believing in God than by not — by declaring “It’s not that I believe in all your might / But I might as well / As insurance or bail.”

“Born Secular” soars with help from lush harmonies, a reverent tone and the resigned observation that “It’s the law of the land / That sometimes the dam just breaks.”

The on-your-own theme continues on “It Wasn’t Me” as she concludes, in a gloriously fragile lilt worthy of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, that “It’s your little red wagon / And you gotta pull it.”

Of course, love can be just as lonely as doubt: “You are what you love / And not what loves you back / And I’m in love with illusions / So saw me in half.”

But she’s at her most achingly vulnerable in the haunting, metaphor-laden title track detailing her rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches journey. Right at the first line (“I was of poor folk”) she tells you this is her “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and by the end she’s taken control of her own mythmaking.

A few of indie rock’s leading men help lighten the tone, and help continue the pitfalls-of-fame lyrical theme, in a lovingly jangly cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care.” It’s the one place Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst really is the new Bob Dylan.

Miss Lewis is focusing on her own songs and so has avoided playing Rilo Kiley songs this tour. Perhaps she figures it would be like playing gospel songs at Nissan Pavilion.

• • •

Glenn Tilbrook’s name doesn’t ring a bell with most U.S. listeners, unless you follow it with “You know, the guy from Squeeze.” The pop veteran hits Jammin’ Java in Vienna Wednesday with solo songs plus classics from that other band.

Squeeze’s high-quality popcraft was a radical sound in 1977 London, and by the time punk gave way to new wave in 1982 (and Squeeze had temporarily broken up), Mr. Tilbrook and partner Chris Difford had been hailed as the Lennon and McCartney of their generation, helped in part by Mr. Tilbrook’s eerily Beatlesque vocals on songs like “Goodbye Girl.”

Though Squeeze only cracked the U.S. charts once (with “Tempted,” still a modern-rock radio staple) during its heyday, it found a huge following on college radio, and its compilation “Singles — 45’s and Under” was standard issue for dorm-room album stacks throughout the ‘80s. Even today you’re likely to hear someone trying to croon “Tempted by the fruit of another!” on karaoke night.

Mr. Tilbrook and Mr. Difford finally parted ways in 1999, but Mr. Tilbrook’s second solo effort, “Transatlantic Ping Pong” (Compass Records), proves some things don’t change. His blue-eyed soul voice and sardonic-yet-regretful delivery is intact, as is his penchant for organ-heavy, Stax/Volt lush soul melodies, which makes for a great sound, although the songs start to blur together about halfway through the CD.

Mr. Difford’s clever wordplay and young-working-class-love storytelling (as in 1979’s “Up The Junction”) is missed, although as Lou Reed would say, those were different times. Those characters are now middle-aged with estranged kids (“Domestic Distortion”) and painfully awkward dinners with ex-lovers (“Hostage,” probably the strongest track here and certainly the most squirm-inducing).

He does close the CD with a peppy Ventures-sounding retro instrumental so you don’t come away too bummed.

New material aside, Mr. Tilbrook seems to have accepted his role as “the Squeeze guy” and revels in it, taking requests from the audience, leading them in singalongs, and sometimes leading them into the parking lot after the show. You might want to start practicing your karaoke now.

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