Just for the record: Jenny Lewis cleaves to the party line
A fortnightly review of music on vinyl
Ignoring the obvious, but the arresting artwork of indie singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis’s new LP, On The Line, and that of her previous outing, 2014’s The Voyager (both Warner Bros), hint at a developing theme, as if the albums are part of a broader suite, one that trawls the darkness of an otherwise brightly-lit, harmonious Los Angeles culture-scape.
The Voyager turned up on many critics’ best of the year lists. Its pastel-toned jacket on the cover masked a powerful undertow of regret and self-recrimination that roiled below the surface of the album’s soft, sun-drenched southern Californian rock sheen. Lewis’s razor-sharp lyrics were snapshots of soured relationships and youthful dreams collapsed under the bitter baggage of adulthood – a deep rot beneath a shallow ritz. That self-exorcism continues with On The Line, a far more “healing” album, as Lewis addresses recent personal tragedy and her own troubled past. A little family history does go some way in understanding the album’s concerns.
Lewis was born into a show business family – her father was a musician and her mother a Las Vegas supper club singer – and became a professional child actor in 1986 when she was eight, and has appeared in scores of TV shows and movies. She quit acting in 1998 to follow a music career and formed a band, Rilo Kylie, with friends. (Lewis had wanted to call the band Love’s Way after her parents’ lounge act, but was vetoed by other band members.)
Rilo Kylie released some moderately successful albums – the two to look out for are 2004’s More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute Records) and 2007’s Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros) (downbeat indie rock with a faint echo of earlier Americana influences) – before Wilson decided on a permanent solo career. She had by then already made a name for herself with 2006’s acclaimed Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love Records, reissued on vinyl in 2016), an album giving backing vocalists The Watson Twins equal billing.
Lewis’s first “proper” solo album was 2008’s Acid Tongue (Warner Bros), the title track referring to an LSD experience she had at 14 as well as her growing reputation as a “confessional” songwriter. A sprawling alt.country set that rocked a little harder than Rabbit Fur Coat, it featured a stellar collection of guest artists, including Elvis Costello, She & Him duo Zooey Deschanel and M Ward, Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, Jonathan Wilson and (now former) partner Johnathan Rice. Her estranged father, Eddie Gordon, also appeared on the album after reentering her life. Another critical success, the album topped critics’ polls of 2008’s best releases.
Wilson was by now the family breadwinner. Her mother was a heroin addict, and quite ill; she passed away in 2016 from liver cancer after contracting hepatitis C. Her mother’s death and Lewis's breakup with Rice after a 12-year relationship was followed by flight from LA for New York in a break with the past. In that regard, On The Line is as much about renewal as reconciliation. (The cleavage-revealing costume on the cover is a nod to her mother’s Vegas act.) Heavyweight collaborators here include Beck, Ringo Starr, Don Was, Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, Jim Keltner and Ryan Adams (who had then yet to face accusations of sexual abuse.) The result is her most polished work yet. Bottom line, according to The Observer: “Jenny Lewis is a songwriter’s songwriter, a dulcet and subversive chronicler of LA shammery whose often sombre subjects come wrapped in the sweetest of country-tinged deliveries.” And you can’t argue with that.
Fans of the late JJ Cale will be heartened that the first posthumous release of songs by the beloved songwriter, guitarist, and singer – so laid back he was said to be horizontal – will shortly be with us. Unusually for one who regarded such matters as being superfluous to his slow-burning groove and fuss-free craft, it’s going to come as a fairly handsome vinyl package. Ornate even, by Cale’s standards.
Stay Around (Because Music), a double LP set, was compiled by those closest to Cale – widow and musician Christine Lakeland Cale, and friend and longtime manager, Mike Kappus. Pressed on 180g vinyl, it will be issued in a gatefold sleeve printed on reversed cardboard with a cutout on the front to reveal the first, lavishly printed inner sleeve. Rather than the standard practice download code, the set will also include the album on CD.
As for the songs, well, they’re obviously the offcuts from a long and quite fruitful career. Cale, who passed away in 2013, was a man who tinkered away in the studios for decades, amassing heaps of outtakes and completed tracks that didn’t “fit” certain albums or were kept in reserve to be included on others. As such, all are previously unreleased, but come mixed and produced by Cale himself and bear his chilled and distinctive bluesy after midnight trademark.
Stay Around won’t be released for another month, and a trawl through Cale’s back catalogue may have to do until then. Start with the debut, 1971’s Naturally (Shelter Records) and 1976’s Troubadour (Shelter), the album that gave Eric Clapton his monster hit, Cocaine, and take it from there.
The impossibly talented Norah Jones – nine-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and she whose touch turns all to gold – releases Begin Again (Blue Note) next month, a seven-track mini-album of singles that she has recorded over the past year with other artists, including Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and producer and singer Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman).
Jones is not afraid to push artistic envelopes and mix things up, and Begin Again certainly will be something of an eclectic bag, with tracks crossing genres from stark acoustic folk ballads through experimental electronica to jazzy, horn-drenched soul. According to a release from Blue Note, she “felt inspired to record and try different things” and wanted the sessions to be “quick and fun and easy and low-pressure. It’s a great way to collaborate with other people. Just a day or three in the studio and that’s it.”
As far as the “different things” category goes, adventurous listeners should seek out Foreverly (Reprise), the 2013 album Jones made with Billie Joe Armstrong, guitarist and singer with punk pop outfit Green Day. It’s a straight-up, track-by-track reinterpretation of the Everly Brothers’ 1958 release, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (Cadence Records). The Everlys, Don and Phil, had reached their early rock ’n’ roll commercial peak when they made this album of sparsely arranged and superbly sung traditional songs, a concept that was quite a surprise from a top pop act, and considerably ahead of its time. Billie Joe and Norah’s take is fairly left field, too, and an unsung gem of an album – one that has sadly been avoided by both artists’ more regular fan bases.
OLD FRIENDS, ETC
All-round renaissance man Steve Earle – not just a rock, country and folk singer-songwriter, record producer, author and actor, but a progressive social activist, loyal buddy and Texan too – has released another tribute album to an old friend who’s passed on. This time, it’s Guy (New West), a poignant, weatherbeaten collection of songs by Guy Clark, who died three years ago, which is out later this week.
Ten years ago, Earle released a similar album, Townes (New West), to honour another mutual friend, the late Townes van Zandt. That release was praised for the fresh vigour and interpretation that Earle brought to a collection of familiar songs, and it’s more of the same with Guy. Advance praise suggests the record teems with a spirit of adventure and invention that makes this an Earle album, above all, but it is one that does lead the listener back to the source of this wonderful material, and that is Clark. The place to start is with his 1975 debut, Old No 1 (RCA Victor). Initial pressings are hard to come by, but it was reissued on 180g vinyl in 2016 by the specialist label 4 Men With Beards. BURIED TREASURE
Another of Earle’s friends no longer with us (and worthy of the tribute album treatment) is songwriter and Americana pioneer Steve Young. His best-known song is Seven Bridge Road, which became a hit for the Eagles when they covered it on their 1980 album, Eagles Live (Asylum). Earlier versions of the song had been recorded by Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Rita Coolidge, Mother Earth and Iain Matthews.
Young had also recorded a few versions of the song himself. It first appeared on his 1969 debut, Rock Salt & Nails (A&M Records). He then rerecorded it as the title track of his 1972 release, Seven Bridges Road (Reprise Records). A bona fide masterpiece, the album would be remixed and re-released in 1981 by Rounder Records with a slightly altered track listing and a different cover. They’re both highly prized, so any version will suit the alt.country collector. Mid-1970s European reissues on Sonet Records, a Scandinavian label, are fairly common.
Saturday, April 13, is Record Store Day, an annual event which celebrates the reemerging culture of independently-owned music stores. It was started in the US in 2008, and has now spread to the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Australia, Spain and Poland. (Wake up, SA!)
They’re a must for vinyl junkies, as a wide range of limited edition albums are pressed specifically for the occasion and only distributed to stores taking part in the event. This year, for example, more than 500 different releases will be available for the UK event. These become highly collectible items, although, should demand warrant it, they are sometimes reissued for standard release.
Top of my bucket list this year are Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks Original Test Pressing (DCMG/Legacy), a replica of the small number of test pressings of songs laid down in New York sessions that went on to become prized as bootlegs after Dylan rerecorded half the album months later prior to its official 1975 release; Just Do It One More Time! (MIPFF), a hitherto unreleased document of Otis Redding’s storming live performance at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, complete with opening sets by Booker T & The MGs and The Mar-Keys; and the reissues of the Rolling Stones’ out of print UK editions of their 1960s compilations, 1966’s Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass), on heavyweight green vinyl, and 1969’s Through The Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol 2), on heavyweight orange vinyl and original octagonal sleeve artwork (both UMC/Poydor). But more on these once (and if) I get my paws on them.