- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Jenny Lewis
Acid Tongue
Warner Bros. Records

When Jenny Lewis was launching her musical career, she attracted critical attention as much for the novelty of her background as a former child actress as for her music. Since then, however, she has established herself as one of the leading singer-songwriters on the indie scene.

It might be a bit of an exaggeration to dub her the female Beck. She’s not exactly an innovator, but, like Beck, she’s an agile synthesizer of established pop, country and rock sounds. She has demonstrated as much fronting the Los Angeles band Rilo Kiley (most recently on last year’s “Under the Back Light”), and she proves it here on the eclectic solo effort “Acid Tongue.”

The smoldering “Pretty Bird” opens with a grinding but cool funk guitar and drum riff, sounding positively licentious next to the sweetness of Miss Lewis’ voice as she sings, waiflike, “Pretty bird, pretty bird/ Why you so still?” She sticks to a similar range (think Curtis Mayfield singing falsetto) on “Bad Man’s World.” The spare, soulful track gets considerable mileage from the interplay between a throbbing funk bass line and a quavering violin-cello riff. The injection of reverb effects into Miss Lewis’ vocals is excessively cheesy, but overall, the track is a serviceable soul homage.

The title track is a plaintive song about an addict’s quest for normalcy. Miss Lewis convenes three male singers - her very own version of the Pips - to lend a gospel flavor to the song with soaring backing vocals to counterpoint lyrics such as, “I went to a cobbler/ To fix a hole in my shoe/ He took one look at my face/ And said, ‘I can fix that hole in you.’”

Miss Lewis contributed backing vocals on the Elvis Costello album “Momfuku,” released earlier this year, and Mr. Costello returns the favor on the Loretta Lynn-inspired “Carpetbaggers.” The opening guitar riff, played by Blake Mills, is redolent of classic Costello, with its growl and twang. Mr. Costello’s own performance, by contrast, feels perfunctory and lackluster. Guest appearances elsewhere on “Acid Tongue” by singer-songwriters M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel are more satisfying.

Despite the occasional misstep, the album maintains an infectious, live feel throughout, peaking with the jam “Jack Killed Mom.” Here, Miss Lewis abandons all pretense of cool, letting her voice ring out.

Her chief gift as a singer, it seems, is an understanding of her own natural limitations and her willingness to surpass them when a song demands it.

Though Miss Lewis lives more for the knowing stage whisper than the full-throated roar, when she rears back and belts one out, she does so with an unmistakable fury that belies the occasional softness.

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