Ten years ago, I was driving through the barren highways of northern Nuevo León, taking GPS points for an environmental study. My companions were another environmental scientist and a bunch of mix cds that curiously had Rilo Kiley‘s ‘The good that won’t come out’ in each of them. I confess without regret: I have an obsession with this track.
On the last day of field sampling, staring straight into the sun as we drove south to Monterrey, my work mate asked for a lift near San Agustín; she wanted to see the place and needed to stretch her legs. There’s an uppity shopping mall nearby and I went straight to the record store, see what wonders I could dig out for a few measly pesos. While diving deep into the bargain bin, I could hear this familiar voice singing one of my fave tracks of all time. It was a cover version of The Traveling Wilbury’s ‘Handle me with care.’
But who was she, who sang with utmost dedication? Who were the generators of those velvety harmonies? Why did that voice sounded so familiar?
You can tell what happened next. A quick visit to the counter, seeing the name on the cover, thinking about The Shining for a brief moment and buying the album straight away, with only the knowledge that a heartwarming cover was surrounded by a great unknown.
And that great unknown was a majestic slice of Americana, equally mixing parts of Country Rock and Blues. It would be a disservice to compare it to anything that Rilo Kiley ever produced but you can see a glimmer of what Jenny Lewis was bringing to that band. Now, this doesn’t mean that the album was derivative. On the contrary, it was a lovely surprise; a creative stroke on a mural-sized canvas.
It’s the country feeling, exploding all over the 12 tracks. It’s the combination of Lewis’ vocals and Chandra and Leigh Watson‘s swell harmonies. It’s the subtle changes in the tracks what push this from “band’s vocalist new solo album” to “something special.”
From ‘Run Devil Run’, the gospel intro to the album, to the stark lamentation of ‘Happy (reprise)’, Rabbit Fur Coat moves through emotional mazes. Indeed, like the hedge maze from The Shining, there’s an unnerving feeling that seeps through all tracks of Rabbit Fur Coat. This feeling is possibly imbued due to the honesty of Jenny Lewis’ lyrics.
“You can’t change things, we’re all stuck in our ways// It’s like trying to clean the ocean // What do you think you can drain it? // Well it was poison and dry long before you came” – Rise up (with fists!!)
‘Rise up (with fists!!)’ is such a strong track. It’s bitter but subtle, slowly unravelling its layers in front of you. What lies beneath is not only terrifying, but brutal in its honesty. ‘Happy’ is another trip with many layers. The simple blues lick, with an effervescent intensity, is merrily accompanied by meditations about eating well and cancer. Then the realisation comes: the thing to fear is looking back at us in every mirror, all the time.
We always are our own worst enemy.
‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ requires the context of Jenny Lewis acting days, using hindsight not to fuel regret, but healing. By the end of the song, you feel can almost feel the catharsis in the room where this was recorded. Again, the symbolism in the lyrics is fantastic, highlighting that old saying: “sic transit gloria“. All glory passes. And so does pain.
Americana has always felt like a place of comfort. A place of large dinners & slices of pie that both nurture the soul and binge the problems away, 3:30 minutes at a time. There’s a firm love declared to the genre with ‘The Charging Skies’ and ‘You are what you love’, two tracks that feel like Siamese twins, echoes from 70s AM radio hits that still resonate with us. This is when you understand how much the cover of ‘Handle me with care’ makes sense in Rabbit Fur Coat: it conveys the plea from the track to a new generation while still paying tribute to the track.
‘Born Secular’ is great reflection on religion. The angelical harmonising by Chandra and Leigh is solid contrast to the barren feeling left by the stark lyrics. A continuous build up in drums while the Watson twins continue to harmonise makes this introspective moment about God and religion such a strong one. ‘Born Secular’ is one of the best religion-themed songs I’ve heard, right up there with Owen’s ‘I believe‘.
Rabbit Fur Coat feels as timeless in 2016 as it felt back in 2006. Blame that on Jenny Lewis and the lyrical themes of honesty, regret and moving forward contained inside. Sure, there’s a lot of yearning in this album. Sure, a song as soul-crushing as ‘It wasn’t me’ could feel like a “pity me!” declaration, but it seems the intention here is to confront what’s wrong in your life, past and present, resolve it and then move on to the next step. Heartbreak will repeat itself. Regret has an open tab. Sadness will always travel the lesser known roads with you. But you know what? We are better because of this, and Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins captured this beautifully with Rabbit Fur Coat.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López