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Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)

13 February 2006

Rabbit Fur Coat opens with “Run Devil Run,” an invocation sung country-gospel style. The only words to this minute-long, mostly vocal performance are those of the title, sung by JENNY LEWIS and the back-up duo of twin sisters CHANDRA WATSON and LEIGH WATSON. It isn’t clear if their singing is a call for the devil to leave or a cheer for the devil to run fast and strong. That ambiguity makes it the perfect opening theme from an album fueled by doubt.

Lewis directs her doubt upward at a hypothetical, likely non-existent God, outward towards friends, lovers, the government, and religious leaders, and inward towards herself. Much of the success of the album lies in the way she entwines of those levels of questioning into one. On “The Big Guns,” she sings first of her own skepticism about religion (“I’ve won hundreds at the track / But I’m not betting on the afterlife”), and its precepts and pretensions (“He forgives you for all you’ve done / But not me / I’m still angry”).

As she sings, she reveals her doubts about religion to be not just theoretical, but tangible, driven by anger at what’s going on in our world. When your country’s president, who wages a war under false pretenses and favors corporate profits over people, claims to be a Christian, and is believed to be one, doubt becomes one with protest, an expression of anger at what’s done in the name of God.

Late in the album Lewis belts out that she was “born secular”, singing it as if she was born in a gospel family. On Rabbit Fur Coat, the songs most filled with skepticism about a divine power are also those that most explicitly bring elements of Southern music—gospel, country, and Southern-flavored ‘blue-eyed soul’—into the melodic, confessional style of pop-rock songwriting by which Lewis has previously made her name, as showcased on her band RILO KILEY’s three albums.

Musically Rabbit Fur Coat resembles Rilo Kiley’s best album—the cohesive, streamlined, and powerfully confessional 2002 release The Execution of All Things—lightly tinged with touches of American roots music. Guitar in the backwards-looking, timeless style of M. WARD (who produced 4 of the album’s songs) abounds on the album, along with belt-it-out backing vocals from THE WATSON TWINS. But it isn’t a ‘country’ album as much as a combination of an old-time American aesthetic with Lewis’s own, more modern sensibility.

The songs examine personal decisions, circumstances, and relationships with the same precision and boldness as when they question rulers and self-proclaimed spiritual leaders. Throughout the album Lewis sings of people’s struggles to figure out their lives. She sings of divorce, of career choices, of betrayal, of a constant interior fight between excessive indulgence and excessive self-control.

All of these quandaries are framed as personal tales, but echo with meanings that transcend one person’s perspective to form an important, universal sort of questioning, with implications both personal and societal. “Happy” is presented first as a song and later as a reprise, and happiness is the strived-for ghost hiding behind so many of the album’s songs, whether it’s to be found in a perfect relationship or in an end to war.

A loose cover of the TRAVELING WILBURYS’ 1988 radio hit “Handle With Care” is a departure from the tone of the album. Lewis is joined by Ward, BEN GIBBARD of DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE, and CONOR OBERST of BRIGHT EYES for the song, which serves both as a quick dose of fun and a playful acknowledgement of the unexpectedly increasing success that Lewis, Oberst, and Gibbard are all are experiencing, the state of being “over-exposed / commercialized,” as the song puts it.

Some of the fans of all three of those bands might be too young even to remember back to the music of the ‘80s, not to mention the music the Wilburys (GEORGE HARRISON, BOB DYLAN, ROY ORBISON, TOM PETTY, JEFF LYNNE) made in their heyday. But the expansion of the Jenny Lewis/Rilo Kiley fanbase is only going to be accelerated by the release of Rabbit Fur Coat, a compact, powerful album from start to finish.