After making some of the strongest music of 2006 with her solo debut "Rabbit Fur Coat," a low-key alternative-country effort of subtle but potent charms, Jenny Lewis sounded like a completely different woman on last year's highly anticipated Rilo Kiley disc, "Under the Black Light," a pathetically soggy bid at shameless commercial pandering. Thankfully, it seems as if her partner in that setting, Blake Sennett, was the man to blame for the disappointing turn toward mainstream pop, as Lewis returns with a second solo offering that's even more low-key than its predecessor but every bit as sensual and entrancing.
More self-assured vocally, though minus the gorgeous backing harmonies of the Watson twins, the 28-year-old Lewis once again offers wry insights into her struggles with romance and personal development--"To be lonely is a habit/Like smoking or taking drugs/And I've quit them both/But man, was it rough," she sings in the title track--while effortlessly incorporating elements of some of the sounds that shaped her, from the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters of the '70s (with echoes of Linda Ronstadt on "Pretty Bird" and the haunting opener "Black Sand") to an imagined collaboration between Randy Newman and the White Stripes (the gleeful murder ballad "Jack Killed Mom") to a mix of alt-country and progressive rock, at least in its multi-part ambition, via a nine-minutes-plus mini-suite/medley ("The Next Messiah").
The 11 songs benefit from the no-frills approach of a three-week recording session more or less live in an analog studio--even the elaborate strings of "Tryin' My Best" don't sound overly fussy--and the only misstep is a hip-hop-like roster of unnecessary cameos. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward of She and Him make sense, but Elvis Costello sounds intrusive during his duet on "Carpetbaggers," while the black Crowes' Chris Robinson is just superfluous. But this is nit-picking.
"If you sing a song, sing a song for them," Lewis croons in "Sing A Song," the final track. "For the bats and belfry and the fairies on Main Street/For the deadbeat daddies and the Boulevard freaks/For the little girls with the carousel eyes/And the brick-a-brak finding housewives, losing their minds." Lewis' impressive strength as both a singer and a songwriter is that she makes every listener feel as if her music was crafted just for them.