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Review: Jenny Lewis Tells Some Brilliant LA Stories on ‘On The Line’

On her fourth solo LP, the singer/songwriter returns with songs rooted in her home turf, with help from Beck, Ringo Starr and others.

Jenny Lewis, 2019

Jenny Lewis, 2019

Autumn de Wilde

“I believe that one can never leave home,” wrote Maya Angelou in Letter To My Daughter; “I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.”

That said, there must be San Fernando Valley silt in Jenny Lewis’ lobes. The child SoCal film star came out as a singer-songwriter adept in the ‘00s with Rilo Kiley, flirted with Omaha’s indie scene for a hot minute, and ended up squarely where she started. You hear the sound of her LA hometurf singing loud through On The Line, her fourth solo set.

Some of it’s just backstory: her vocals tracked in Capitol Records Studio B, the room christened by Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1956 when he gesticulated at the sessions for (Frank Sinatra Conducts) Tone Poems Of Color, her piano chords fingered on the same keys that voiced Carole King’s Tapestry. The music indeed feels touched by King’s white-girl Laurel Canyon soul, but maybe more by Harry Nilsson’s tender, hooky wit. Lewis channels Brian Wilson’s sun-kissed doo-wop on the title track — with a sly pun on letter-sweaters and a winking reference, perhaps, to “Caroline No” (here “Caroline, uh”). Elliott Smith gets namechecked on “Heads Gonna Roll,” the Go-Go’s perky new wave shines from “Rabbit Hole,” Fleetwood Mac’s heady harmony-builds bloom on “Red Bull and Hennessy.”

And then there are the legends who actually play on the record. Jim Keltner has drummed behind Carly Simon, Lucinda Williams, Yoko Ono and every Beatle; he’s on every track except the one Ringo Starr handles alone (they both play on “Red Bull and Hennessy,” as they did at the Concert For Bangladesh). Beck produces and sings on three songs. “Do-Si-Do” is a hazy, midtempo Odelay-scented space-rock chant on which Lewis manages to rhyme “you ain’t no pharaoh” with “get back on your Paxil.” And “Little White Dove” is a playful lavender funk jam, very Prince via Midnite Vultures, that takes on more colors when you learn that it came out of Lewis’ experience reconciling with her mom after years of estrangement, just before she died. The album also features a lot of production and guitar work by Ryan Adams, a fact that hasn’t been boldfaced in the marketing bulletpoints. But even this reeks of Los Angeles, a town full of talented dirtbags and sun-baked human trainwrecks.

As glorious as the sound of this thing is, glinting with letter-perfect ‘70s-’80s rock sonics and touches of 21st-century psychedelic irony, the songs are the show, written by a woman of a particular age from a perspective well past jaded — she’s been there done that — swung back around to a wide-eyed, faintly zen reportage. Poetic images pop. The little trip up north “in a borrowed convertible red Porsche/ with a narcoleptic poet from Duluth” that triggers existential reveries (“Heads Gonna Roll”). The druggy gal “sliding down a bong” while nodding to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and spinning cautionary tales to youngsters regarding Candy Crush (“Wasted Youth”). The drifting Cali dreamer “on a Hollywood lawn today/ sucking back some Beaujolais/ remembering better days/ looking up at the chemtrail haze.” (“Hollywood Lawn”) The wild girl getting head in a Corvette and crying “like Meryl Streep” (“Party Clown”). The heartbroken girl on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border who, after discovering her lover’s infidelity – “I wanted to please you, my dress was see-through/
As I looked through your phone” — contemplates an escape that might mirror the one in Bobby Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” (“Taffy”).

The magic trick comes via Lewis’ tone, ever so faintly wry, which lets her look into the camera while simultaneously playing the part, like Jean Seberg in Breathless. No moment epitomizes this more than her invoking the words “rock and roll” on “Do-Si-Do,” wrapped in clouds of gossamer synthetics and reverb. It’s a glorious and masterfully plastic delivery, so genuinely ecstatic the quotation marks around that sullied genre moniker take on their own beauty — the gild on a joyously self-aware hustle that’s all the truer for it.

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