Jenny Lewis is my new favorite singer, but that's just one small reason of many why Acid Tongue belongs on any complete list of 2008's best records.
An adventurous and fearless songwriter, both in solo endeavors and at her day job with L.A. alt-rockers Rilo Kiley, Lewis straps herself to her insecurities and yearnings and wings to wherever the creative surge carries her. Sounds simple enough, but it's not a trick recommended for the faint of heart or the modestly gifted.
And it's a tribute to the scope of Lewis' talent and reach that Acid Tongue ventures to a considerably different realm than her solo debut, 2006's Rabbit Fur Coat, a spare, country soul gem with vocal support from the incomparable Watson Twins that cast Lewis as a younger, Southern California Tammy Wynette/Dusty Springfield hybrid with modern attitude and insight.
While Acid Tongue doesn't always stray quite as far from Rilo Kiley's angular attack, Lewis again incorporates a host of rootsy elements--vintage soul, gospel, folk and country--to riveting effect. In large part, that's due to her voice, which has never exuded more elastic command and emotional authority. Combined with stripped-down arrangements that blur genre boundaries, the effect is fresh and thoroughly original, even when traveling familiar ground, as on the taut melodic rockers "See Fernando" and "Carpetbaggers" (which features guest vocals from the suddenly ubiquitous Elvis Costello).
But, of course, it's the less familiar moments that truly stamp Acid Tongue with Lewis' signature, and there are plenty of them. "The Next Messiah" rumbles out of the gate like some aggro, long-lost Doors track and proceeds through three distinct sections before barreling home nine-minutes-and-change later. The title cut offers one of Lewis' typically vivid and slightly surreal interior narratives set to simple acoustic guitar chords and occasional bursts of gospel chorus, and contains the kind of priceless line she regularly tosses off like cigarette ashes: "To be lonely is a habit like smoking or taking drugs / And I've quit them both but man was it rough." Then there's the barely describable "Jack Killed Mom," every bit as ripped and quirky as its title and appropriately featuring indie culture "it" girl Zooey Deschanel on background vocals.
Above all, Lewis is a mood creator and this is the kind of record you don't nibble at or pillage for an I-pod, you settle in and take the time to absorb it all in one extended shot. When you're dealing with an artist who makes a consistent effort to grow and keep things interesting, I call that a fair exchange. • Mike Thomas