Jenny Lewis has a pretty sweet day job. As the dominant voice of indie-rock darlings Rilo Kiley, she gets to write songs with her best friends and travel the world to play for hordes of fans. They've got major-label backing from Warner Bros., and enough underground credibility to support several high-profile side projects.
But being in a band with a lot of distractions left Lewis with time to write a batch of soul-tinged tunes that wouldn't necessarily fit the band's poppier sound. Her reference point was "Gonna Take a Miracle," Laura Nyro's 1971 collaboration with R&B trio LaBelle, but Lewis dresses "Rabbit Fur Coat" in country-rock conventions.
For her first solo album, Lewis takes a step out of her comfort zone, but it's a logical step. It's a graceful sidestep, not a stride. The credits are crammed with familiar names from her usual crowd, but twins Chandra and Leigh Watson widen the circle significantly with their soulful background vocals.
Born in Las Vegas and raised in Hollywood, Lewis learned at a young age to distinguish between image and reality. Now 29, she's spent most of her adult life illustrating the differences in song.
In a recent interview with fashion magazine Lemonade, she described her untraditional upbringing: "My family was like 'religion of the week.' There wasn't any real focus, although I am Jewish because my mother was Jewish and her mother was Jewish."
No country-soul album would be complete without spirituality, and Lewis' search for meaning is all over "Rabbit Fur Coat." God baffles her, almost as much as her mother does.
On "Born Secular," she juxtaposes the two authorities in a lovely lament. "God goes where he wants/And who knows where he is not?/Not in me," she sings. But then she supplants the universal enigma with one more specific: "It's the way mothers greet their sons/When it's a moment too late."
She doesn't have all the answers, but she does know when to step aside: Long after she stops holding her last note, melancholy organ and the Watsons' sweet sighs sustain the mood.
She's a compelling storyteller - her sardonic tone is transfixing even when her narrative falters - and the title track is an example. "Rabbit Fur Coat" sounds like Emmylou Harris singing Bobbie Gentry's words.
In interviews, Lewis is generally reluctant to discuss her former career as a child actress, but she's hinted there's a little truth in this tale of a broken social climber and her estranged daughter.
"She was waitressing on welfare; we were living in the Valley," Lewis sings. A woman suggests putting the narrator to work, and "I became a $100,000 kid."
She denies being bitter, but her rhymes indicate otherwise: "Where my ma is now, I don't know/She was living in her car, I was living on the road/And I hear she's putting that stuff up her nose." Given a few tantalizing details, imaginative listeners could be forgiven for filling in the blanks.
Elsewhere, "The Big Guns" grapples with mercy, forgiveness and the possibility of an afterlife, while "It Wasn't Me" and "Rise up with Fists!!" dismiss false gods and suspect prophets. Lewis isn't happy with America's resurgent fundamentalism; still, she's struggling with her own shortcomings.
Whether she's calling out romantic hypocrisy in "You Are What You Love," religious hypocrisy in "The Charging Sky" or political hypocrisy in Rilo Kiley's "It's a Hit," she articulates a sense of unease that isn't always evident in such accessible music. And the more venues for that, the better.
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins will come through Philly on March 20, to play First Unitarian Church's sanctuary space. It's a more intimate space than Lewis usually plays with Rilo Kiley, but her clear voice and well-chosen words bear close attention.• • •
Also worth checking out is moody New York trio Rahim. On "Trebuchet," the standout track from last year's "Jungles" EP, guitarist Michael Friedrich and bassist Ryan McCoy trade barbed riffs and cryptic lines about lovers' spats and loneliness.
Rahim's full-length album, "Ideal Lives," isn't out till April, but lead single "10,000 Horses" is a bold advance warning.