With Rabbit Fur Coat, Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis sets out to secure herself a spot alongside the Patsy Clines and Tammy Wynettes of decades past. The startling part of such a bold venture is that Lewis succeeds with flying colors. Sure, the country western strum fest and romantic lyricism of Fur Coat is not that far a cry from past Rilo Kiley albums, but herein Lewis asserts herself as a true one-woman show. The album straddles the fine line between experimental kitsch and cheesy nostalgia to create a sound that is both refreshing and almost eerily dated. And with lyrics like, “I was of poor folk / But my mother had a rabbit fur coat / And a girl of less character pushed her down the LA River,” you can’t help but love that a Los Angeles native can feign a country swagger so damn well.
Throughout Fur Coat, Lewis juxtaposes her very Hollywood upbringing – both she and bandmate Blake Sennett spent their younger years memorizing scripts (remember that adorable little redhead from “Troop Beverly Hills”?) – with her Southern belle songwriting aesthetic, creating a record that is as clever as it is illogical. Much like her angel-voiced predecessors, Lewis plays up the religious references, crooning lines like, “God works in mysterious ways / And God gives and then he takes / From me” on “Born Secular” and “And it’s a surefire bet I’m gonna die / So I’m taking up praying on Sunday nights” on “The Charging Sky.” So, too, does she employ a barrage of nifty instrumentation to play up her down-home charm – think harmonicas, lone acoustics and gospel-style backup vocals, courtesy of the Watson Twins.
Still, the album isn’t all wistful Baptist reminiscing. Like Rilo Kiley outings of days gone by, here Lewis sets herself apart from her contemporaries by way of her lyrics. Rather than penning the requisite twelve songs about heartbreak, Lewis plucks her way through a slew of ditties about broken homes, greed, gambling, war and peace. Not to mention that her knack for harmonized narration makes her the ideal country songbird. Take, for example, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” a tale told through the eyes of a girl whose materialistic mother pines all her life for the riches of others. The tongue-in-cheek closing to the album’s title track works much like a snappy punch line with Lewis stating, “But mostly I’m a hypocrite / I sing songs about the deficit / But when I sell out and leave Omaha / What will I get? / A mansion house and a rabbit fur coat.”
And while Rabbit Fur Coat is, more than anything else, a vehicle that Lewis is undoubtedly driving, we cannot forget the all-important cameo appearances that litter the album. Most noticeably, the harmony-heavy cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care” finds Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, album producer M. Ward and indie poster boy Conor Oberst singing refrains alongside Lewis’ sunny melodies. For those taking notes, Gibbard fills in for Roy Orbison, Ward sings in place of Jeff Lynne and Oberst takes over Bob Dylan’s parts.
Songs run the gamut from feverishly twangy (“The Big Guns”) and whimsically alt-country (“You Are What You Love”) to unassumingly simplistic, (“Happy,” “It Wasn’t Me”) making Rabbit Fur Coat as enjoyable as it is diverse. And, though Lewis may not yet be as widely popular as Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn, her solo debut surely succeeds in teaching Shania Twain a thing or two.
[Aly Comingore is single-handedly working to make the corn pipe the must-have accessory this spring.]