Rabbit Fur Coat
ans of Rilo Kiley have long been accustomed to the song writing talents and lovely voice of lead singer Jenny Lewis. But on her solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis shuffles out of the indie-darling limelight and into the soft-shade of a Memphis back porch. Based on the 1971 album, It’s Gonna Take a Miracle, recorded by Laura Nyro, with Patti Labelle and Blue Belles on harmony, Lewis brings along her own divine backup courtesy of Kentucky-born gospel singers the Watson Twins, for an album of rich country, folk, and gospel music.
The hymn “Run Devil Run” opens the record, and resembles Nyros’ version of “I Met Him on a Sunday” in its lifting, surreal gospel harmonies. Lewis transitions then from a stained-glass stillness into the sharp, frenetic urgency of “Big Guns.” Here, as Lewis’s prairie-purring voice reflects upon the separations and contradictions of our lives, she sets forth a plan to heal our presents, rather than ‘bet on an afterlife’: “First, I’ll build a sword / Get some words / To explain / It’s a plan, brother at least / And I’ll pretend everyone here wants peace.” Lewis shows how, most often, dreams are born with a much-needed portion of illusion to guide their way.
On “Rise Up With Fists,” Lewis tests this optimistic spirit by challenging it with hard truths. In a squint-eyed twang she asks: “What are you changing? / Who do you think you’re changing? / You can’t change things / We’re all stuck in our ways.” And as she observes the cold ways we do try to alter our lives: “You can wake up younger, under the knife / You can wake up sounder, after being analyzed,” she insists there is still hope after we’ve “crushed all the pretty things.”
One of the more startling songs of the record, the down by the boondocks lullaby “Happy” touches upon Dolly Parton poetry: “I’m as sure / As the moon / Rolls around / The sea” and evokes the classic country gamine Dusty Springfield. “Charging Sky” leans more towards Lewis’s humorous side with plenty of playful, old Polaroid images: “And my Dad starts growing Bob Dylan’s beard / And I share with my friend’s a couple of beers / In the Orlando streets / In the belly of the beast.” While on “Melt Your Heart”, Lewis switches to a more motherly, softly-knowing voice: “What’s good on your soul / Is bad on your nerves / If you reverse it”. On this record, it’s just one of many moments made for lip-biting agreement.
The title track stands out as well, not only for its bare waltz nature, but because it becomes the story-telling high-point of the album. Here, Lewis, in her most vulnerable tone, tells the travels of her mother’s rabbit fur coat. In doing so, she reveals how just one certain thing, one strange detail, can follow and haunt us through life. And, even though we may run from it, its power is such that it can return to us through our own dreams.
From here, the mood of the album takes gentle shift, with an enthusiastic cover of the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care.” And while Lewis handles George Harrison’s lines, Saddle Creek all-stars M Ward, Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst play the other members of the fabled power-band. And while every song on the album has its own unique and stunning qualities, “Born Secular” is certainly one of the more transporting, gospel-influenced songs of the record. On “Secular,” Lewis struggles with a sense of detachment that occurs with her relationship (or lack thereof) with God. Balancing the burn of hope with the strain of loss, the words flow in an Unchained Melody candor: “God works, in mysterious ways / God gives, and then he takes…from me.”
As for Rilo Kiley, classic influences have always held a strong presence, (for instance, the folky-gem “Bulletproof” or the Aretha/Patsy power ballad “I Never.”) So it probably isn’t much of a surprise Lewis’s voice finds such a comforting home on Rabbit Fur Coat. But then again, anything that reaches a certain state of beauty, whether it echoes the familiar or reinvents it, will have plenty of wonderment weaved in to leave you in slack-jawed awe. The surprise is in how beautiful music can be, and how far it can both transport and transform someone…but that’s just mysterious ways for you.
Reviewed by: Sue Bell
Reviewed on: 2006-01-26