Record Reviews 

Indie-pop princess gets less adventurous on country-soul solo debut but still shines.

"Indie-pop princess" probably doesn't sound like a promising source for a first-rate country-soul album, a feat that demands vocal chops at least as much as a handle on the concept. But singers who fit that description don't usually have a voice like Jenny Lewis.

Lewis earned an audience beyond indie-rock specialists with her band Rilo Kiley's 2004 breakout/career-album More Adventurous, which marshals as much hookiness, lyrical depth, and vocal power as any guitar-rock album of the decade. In the wake of More Adventurous, it's seemed like Lewis (a former child actress with Hollywood connections) has garnered a lot more press for her looks and biography than for her musical talents, which is unfortunate, because More Adventurous immediately established her (or should have) as one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of her generation.

A startlingly expressive singer, Lewis can wail or whisper with equal command, but what's most impressive is how she puts across a song with her precise phrasing and endless lexicon of purrs, aches, vocal sighs, and other inflections. As a songwriter, she has a penchant for essaying the personal, the political, and the observational all at the same time, tripping from one mode to another in what sometimes feels like daydream meditation, though the accidental feel of her best songwriting is clearly worked over.

This kind of craft is all over Rabbit Fur Coat, a solo debut with plentiful back-up vocals from the co-billed Watson Twins. The largely acoustic setting brings Rilo Kiley's country-rock undercurrents to the fore, though Lewis eschews the Patsy Cline-style dramatics she flaunted on More Adventurous' most rootsy numbers. Lyrically, the record feels more autobiographical (the title track recounts her Hollywood childhood in fairy-tale form) but no less performed.

Rabbit Fur Coat is a much more modest record than More Adventurous, and I certainly prefer the ambition and musical power of the band album, but it more than confirms Lewis as a major talent. Only misstep: an indie-rock all-star cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" that's genial enough but disrupts the overall mood. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

Sun, Sun, Sun

The Elected

(Sub Pop)

Despite the Postal Service success story and stand-alone power of Iron and Wine, Sub Pop is choked with middling, derivative, future residents of the cutout bin. Witness the Elected, which has a firm command of their Byrds-y '70s-AM pop but can't manage to provide an album with more than two or three great cuts. Sun, Sun, Sun's second track, "Would You Come With Me," is the kind of unforgettable perfection that justifies the price of admission. But, unable to repeat that peak, the Elected fiddle around with the country-rock blueprint, add a lot of "ye olde" instruments to the standard guitar/bass/drum/keys norm, and come up with much filler and two or three numbers that get halfway there. ("Would You Come With Me," "Not Going Home," "Sun, Sun, Sun") -- Andrew Earles

Grade: B-

The Brave and the Bold

Tortoise and Bonnie "Prince" Billy

(Overcoat Recordings)

Two venerable indie acts teamed up for this covers album: Bonnie "Prince" Billy (aka Will Oldham) supplies murky vocals and eerie melodies; Chicago post-rockers Tortoise supply intricate instrumental interplay and dark atmospheres. The results, however, aren't nearly as good as such a fantasy-league collaboration would suggest. The Brave and the Bold translates an impressive variety of songs -- from Springsteen and Melanie to Devo and the Minutemen -- into a uniformly dour setting that might've made for an interesting EP but can't sustain a full album. Even for fans, The Brave and the Bold will be a one-listen-then-shelve-forever experience. ("Some Say [I Got Devil]")

-- Stephen Deusner

Grade: C

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