An album’s first song can be very telling. A great one can be a magical introduction to the flavour and atmosphere of a record. It gets one a little excited, optimistic even, in anticipation of the musical riches to come. The Beatle’s “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and The Smith’s “The Queen Is Dead” are two great examples. Shelby Lynne’s “Your Lies” (from 2000’s I Am Shelby Lynne) is one of my favourite intro songs ever.
The new albums from Jenny Lewis and Belle And Sebastian have perfect intro songs — what follows never falters.
Rilo Kiley front woman Jenny Lewis’s solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, is a sleepy country and soul pleasure. Apparently Los Angeles-based Lewis was inspired by brilliant songstress Laura Nyro’s 1971 album, It’s Gonna Take A Miracle. That record is a sublime covers album of pop and R&B masterpieces from the 1960s (ranging from Motown to Brill Building and other girl groups). On Miracle, Nyro teamed up with Labelle (featuring vocal powerhouses Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) and the harmonies are extraordinary.
Lewis, in turn, has the Kentucky- born, gospel-singing sisters The Watson Twins. Lewis wrote all the songs and the laidback production from Mike Mogis and M Ward keep the arrangements endearingly old-fashioned.
Lewis has a strong, solid emotional voice and when the Watsons join her, it’s sublime. On the opening track, “Run Devil Run,” the girls sing a cappella: “Run devil run/ Devil run.” They croon sweetly: “Devil run/ From love.” But this is really just a warm-up for the energetic and gospel-tinged “The Big Guns.” Twangy guitars and happy drumbeats stay in step with the girls’ vocal perfection.
The album’s one slight misstep is the straightforward cover of The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” (featuring Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard). That song really falls flat and screws up the dreamy ambiance. The album tugs at your heartstrings and “Handle” is an unwelcome head- scratching annoyance.
The title track, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” shows off what Lewis does best. It’s based on a true story of her very absent mother, echoing the sad richness of Dolly Parton’s “Coat Of Many Colors” mixed with the sultry dark humour of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy.” A single guitar plaintively strums along to Lewis’s pleasurable storyteller lilt. “I was of poor folk/ But my mother had a rabbit fur coat/ And a girl of less character pushed her down the LA river/ Hand over that rabbit fur coat.”
Scottish indie darlings Belle And Sebastian have a more eccentric, smarty-pants way of telling a story. They have improved on their hazy, lazy melodies of the past. On 2003’s Trevor Horn-produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the group got a little showier and livelier. They moved away from their preciousness and became joyously cocky.
The Life Pursuit (their seventh album) carries on where Waitress left off. But where Waitress seemed more a well-crafted experiment, Pursuit is one of Belle And Sebastian’s best. Front man Stuart Murdoch wrote practically every song. The album stylistically shifts genres at record speed but there’s a coherency in the arrangements. Nothing is jarring to the ears. Producer and mixer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Supergrass, Phoenix and Stars) sees to that. Without even trying, the album pours buckets of brilliance.
The piano opening of the first track “Act Of The Apostle” would fit comfortably on a Sergio Mendes And Brasil ’66 track. But within seconds it morphs into The Kinks-like samba with Murdoch’s lovely falsetto (a touch of a young Ray Davies) melding to the heavenly female backup singers.
His lyrics are perfectly splendid. They fly off the page as intelligently as they glide off of Murdoch’s impassioned tongue. “Oh, if I could make sense of it all/ I wish that I could sing/ I’d stay in a melody.
“I would float along in my everlasting song/ What would I do to believe?”
“White Collar Boy” feels like a bubblegum version of Aladdin Sane-era Bowie meets Big Star. Brazen electric guitars scream and tribal drumbeats and cymbals clash as Murdoch screams: “White collar, got dirt in your pants/ You got egg in your hair/ You got spit on your chin.”
“The Blues Are Still Blue,” “Sukie In The Graveyard” and the funkified breezy magnificence that is “Song For Sunshine” are the standouts. But I can’t get enough of the cheesy fluttery guitars (think Haircut One Hundred) and high-pitched “bup-bup ba-da” backing vocals on “We Are The Sleepyheads.” It seems silly and shouldn’t work but it does. “Someone told the truth when it really mattered most/ The beauty of the moment is the beauty sadly lost.” All of these elements just prove that The Life Pursuit is as close to pop perfection as anyone could get. It’s unbridled with its dizzy, exuberant cleverness.