The Greatest (Matador)
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins
Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)
Two of the more complicated women in indie rock have just gone all Dusty in Memphis on us. Chan Marshall recorded Cat Power’s The Greatest (Matador) with a veteran session crew, anchored by Hi Records house-band siblings Teenie and Flick Hodges, at Memphis’s Ardent Studios–the birthplace of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” (and, lest we forget, 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite”). And on her first solo album, Rilo Kiley front woman Jenny Lewis blends her vocals with the buttery harmonies of the Louisville-bred Watson Twins on Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love), which is modeled after Laura Nyro’s 1971 soul dalliance, a collaboration with LaBelle called Gonna Take a Miracle. Either project could easily have devolved into a game of dress-up: soul music is rooted in a specific form, history, community, and spirituality that can swallow up a singer’s personality. But both Marshall and Lewis, two candidly self-involved songwriters, actually emerge with their identities more clearly articulated.
There’s precious little of Dusty’s Swinging London in Chan (born Charlyn) Marshall. The inert beauty of Cat Power songs echoes the stoic reserve of the emotionally devastated, a mood epitomized by British folk revivalists like Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson–or to be more specific, their wan descendant Beth Orton. Writing for Pitchfork, Chris Ott pegged Marshall as “the porcelain art-school doll whose blissful confusion you could never hold in your hands,” and in fact she’s acted like even more of a drip than that compliment suggests or her considerable talent warrants. Her onstage shambling and mumbling can make her live shows unbearable for anyone who isn’t a devotee; her limp 2000 cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” ended with what might be the most fraudulent voicing of “I try” ever recorded. She’s an arty cipher whose erratic doldrums have felt deliberately vague–you could mistake them for your own or, if your taste in lust objects runs to the neurotic, for intimations of a personality.
A genre exercise is a fine way to obscure yourself, and Marshall’s soul move initially suggests resignation, not redemption. The bleak title cut, an impressionistic lament of a coulda-been contender, begins the disc with an apparent statement of purposelessness: she shall be overcome. But drummer Steve Potts slyly unsettles the beat, tripping up the mood. Cymbals skitter around the edges and snare hits dance in from unexpected angles as he locates room to move within the constraints of the simple tune. More obviously disruptive moments follow: the smoky lament “Lived in Bars,” haunted by a muted trumpet, breaks into a three-chord strut midway through, and quirky whistling lifts up the chin of the forlorn “After It All.” And on “Could We,” an invitation to “take a walk” and talk things over, a rubbery guitar lick and a horn riff illuminate Marshall’s playful seductive side.
You know the Hollywood ending to this story–the old pros nudge the sullen poetess out of her solipsism, she helps ’em pick out hipper clothes or understand their kids or something, and valuable lessons are learned all around. But The Greatest is hardly as convivial as all that: if its sound echoes Dusty in Memphis, its mood more closely resembles Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, with the musicians shading an introspective singer adrift on her own phrasing. But the music does give give her the room to open up her delivery–her pain feels more three-dimensional and her heartbreak more rounded. The title of the closing track, “Love & Communication,” is a telling tweak of Al Green’s hit–the good reverend craved “Love & Happiness,” but happiness is more than Marshall dares ask for. She’ll settle for self-expression and the opportunity to present herself as human. And it’s a pleasure to finally meetcha, Chan.
Jenny Lewis voices her desires more directly: she names one song on Rabbit Fur Coat “Happy,” and reprises it as a 48-second coda. But she’s not quite as open as she seems. When she sings “happy” it comes out “happy-hee-hee-hee”–mocking the very idea of contentment even as the warm grain and supple contours of her voice suggest she’s found it. That’s the core tension in Rabbit Fur Coat: the push and pull between the physical pleasures of Lewis’s homey, often acoustic take on country soul and her self-critical lyrics. “Mostly I’m a hypocrite,” she admits on the title track, and the song exposes the gap between intention and action as expertly as “The Good That Won’t Come Out,” her withering take on the matter from Rilo Kiley’s 2002 The Execution of All Things. Even when Lewis berates bed-hopping pharisees and other sanctimonious frauds on “Rise Up With Fists!!” she’s self-aware, gliding into a chorus of “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Despite the Watsons’ credit on the cover, this is a solo album in the purest sense–it’s all about Jenny. The one misstep, a note-perfect karaoke of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” isn’t sunk by the stand-ins for Roy Orbison (Ben Gibbard) and Jeff Lynne (Matt Ward), or even Conor Oberst’s awkwardly croaked Dylan noises; the problem is that Lewis doesn’t sound like part of a group. So it’s fitting that when she laments on “Born Secular” that “God gives and then He takes from me,” she sings no syllable more gorgeously and with more fervor than that first-person pronoun. The spare piano recalls John Lennon’s own kiss-off to the Almighty, “God,” but at least he had Yoko for company. Lewis sounds completely abandoned.
God, in Lennon’s words, is “a concept by which we measure our pain,” and Lewis wouldn’t disagree: “I was born secular and inconsolable,” sings the woman who recently told CMJ that she was raised a “terrible Jew.” She’s generally ambivalent when it comes to faith, though. “I’ve won hundreds at the track / But I’m not bettin’ on the afterlife,” she crows on “The Big Guns,” but the petition she offers Somebody on “The Charging Sky” suggests she’s taking just such a gamble: “It’s not as though I believe in your all-might / But I might as well.”
Lewis’s rudimentary numbers share little, lyrically or formally, with the Brill Building confections that Nyro reclaimed under the direction of Philly soul architects Gamble & Huff. But she is looking backward, longing for a pop structure that reflected a world where you knew what you believed. In its 60s heyday soul connected so well with the civil rights movement because the music seemed to have it both ways: it encompassed gospel’s moral certainty, lending it a communal voice, while also providing a secular, more personal language of faith in self-reliance. By adopting its vocabulary, both the introverted Marshall and the expansive Lewis meet their own peculiar fates. Marshall, so long a wispy archetype of despair, finally expresses emotions nuanced enough to resemble ones that real live people actually feel; Lewis, desperately singing out to that tradition, hears only echoes of her own voice. And neither has ever sounded more like her own woman.