Tuesday, 30 November 2010

JENNY AND JOHNNY - I'm Having Fun Now

jenny

I first became aware of Jenny Lewis in 2005 when her band Rilo Kiley’s second album ‘More Adventurous’ gained a cult following. As good as parts of that album were, it was only with the release of the following year’s ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ – an album recorded by Lewis with The Watson Twins - I became truly convinced of Ms Lewis’s brilliance. That album’s lush songs, full of three-part harmonies steeped in old country and gospel traditions, captured her voice beautifully.

The third Rilo Kiley disc, 2007’s ‘Under The Blacklight’ was also loaded with great songs and it seemed like Jenny Lewis was on a roll. In 2008, Lewis’s first proper solo album ‘Acid Tongue’ had a similar rootsy feel to her previous outing with The Watson Twins, but stripped of the three part harmonies, the songs felt a little starker in places. Also, Lewis’s repetitive choruses meant the album wasn’t quite the masterpiece it could have been, although a suitably over the top performance from Elvis Costello comes recommended.

I always figured that Jenny would next be seen fronting Rilo Kiley once again, who by 2010 were certainly due a new release. It wasn’t to be. Instead, she teamed up with singer/songwriter Johnathan Rice, who’d previously produced her ‘Acid Tongue’ album. I’d hoped Jenny and Johnny’s song writing style would be of a similar retro, heart-tugging style to that of M Ward and Zooey Deschanel – the kind featured on their She & Him albums – but instead, Jenny and Johnny offer a bunch of mostly sprightly rock-pop numbers, befitting of the album’s title, ‘I’m Having Fun Now’. Although this album has a slightly disposable nature, it’s great to hear Lewis tackling material that’s upbeat and not quite so self aware – a polar opposite to her mature side previously showcased with The Watson Twins.

‘Scissor Runner’ opens with Johnathan Rice taking lead vocal over jangly indie pop verses, which musically aren’t far removed from ‘Lovey’ era Lemonheads. This works well enough, but naturally, once Jenny Lewis adds her counter vocal and chorus harmonies, it becomes rather more special – even though the arrangement is fairly basic, with no real climax. It’s this style of 90s indie pop which Jenny and Johnny have made their forte for a good proportion of the songs featured. ‘My Pet Snakes’ has an old rock ‘n’ roll twang in places – albeit delivered in a late 90s style. While it’s music may not be as instantly enjoyable as the opening number, vocally it’s a winner. Jenny takes lead on the verse, stepping aside for Johnny for the chorus. Due to a few rather over the top ‘oohs’ placed in the backing vocal this sounds a little hit and miss, but Jenny delivers a great lead.

One of the stand out numbers ‘Big Wave’ features an upfront vocal from Lewis (with a brief harmony from Rice at the end of the chorus). With rhythm guitars crashing against a great bass line, this sounds a bit like a Rilo Kiley leftover, but more than that, it’s hard not to find more than slight influence from Juliana Hatfield and John Strohm’s work with Boston legends Blake Babies. Taking things at a slower pace, the acoustic based ‘Switchblade’ features some top harmonies. In terms of arrangement it’s very strong, with each element given more than enough space in the mix. Sounding great together, Jenny’s breathy vocals harmonize with Johnny’s plain yet enjoyable delivery.

Against a gentle, echoing guitar, ‘While Men Are Dreaming’ offers the album it’s only number which could be compared to the aforementioned She & Him. Jenny’s multi-tracked vocal lends itself well to the song’s naivety, while Johnny’s voice has been used to create a strong counter-vocal which features obvious a cappella stylings. It definitely would have worked as a true a cappella number, but the guitar adds some great textures. ‘While Men Are Dreaming’ is at odds with the rest of Jenny and Johnny’s material, but due to Jenny’s charm, it works well and lends the album a little variety.

‘Just Like Zeus’ is a sixties-inspired number where Jenny and Johnny’s harmonies are at their best. In fact, the whole band are tight – the simple drum part working particularly well – creating a number which would suit the twin harmonies of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. It’d be great to hear them sing it, but it’s extremely unlikely we ever will. Speaking of Matthew Sweet, an influence from his ‘In Reverse’ era work can be heard throughout ‘Animal’ and ‘New Yorker Cartoon’. Maybe it’s the chiming, sixties influenced guitars; maybe it’s Johnny’s vocal style; it could even be both – there’s a confident air and a greater depth during these Sweet influenced numbers than the album’s first few tracks would ever suggest. Whatever, it’s on these numbers where Johnny really comes into his own and proves himself a more than worthy companion to Jenny’s shining vocals.

At this point, things tail off... ‘Straight Edge of the Blade’ returns things to the jangly defaults of the album’s opening numbers, albeit with weaker results. There’s nothing wrong with Jenny’s vocals here, but there’s a sense you’ve already heard this done in a superior way. The country twang of the guitars in the left speaker add a nice flourish, but on the whole, it’s little more than an okay number. With a greater focus on keyboards to flesh out the sound and an over-reliance on handclaps, ‘Slavedriver’ is upbeat enough to hold its own, but the song writing isn’t too remarkable, and also a greater focus on keyboards plus an over reliance on handclaps means the song doesn’t quite work. The closing guitar driven number, ‘Committed’, is almost as throwaway. The tune itself sounds oddly familiar and certainly provides an upbeat end to the album (with both Jenny and Johnny sounding like they had a great time), but there’s a feeling that, once again, you’ll have heard better numbers on ‘I’m Having Fun Now’.

You won’t find much originality in Jenny and Johnny’s sound; but you’ll find plenty of enjoyment if you’re a Jenny Lewis fan. The end results are often solid, and the album’s relative brevity at under 40 minutes ensures a breezy, good time affair. It’s likely the presence of Jenny Lewis that’s attracted you to this album in the first place, and as such, if you’re a Jenny Lewis devotee, you’ll certainly want to have ‘I’m Having Fun Now’ in your collection.


November 2010

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