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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
It isn’t a literal blend – Acid Tongue isn’t a southern gothic dance record – but it does lead listeners roughly halfway between the sonic extremes Lewis has most recently occupied. The end result sounds, somewhat unsurprisingly, like a pleasantly polished, slightly rockin’ update on the early ‘70s Laurel Canyon sound – in other words, it’s a looser, slightly earthier take on Rilo Kiley’s sticky Silverlake pop, kind of like Lucinda Williams bumping into Linda Ronstadt on Lookout Mountain Avenue. Lewis drafted an eclectic group of co-conspirators to join her at that crossroads, too – Acid Tongue boasts cameos from indie-rock darlings M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel (otherwise known as She & Him), Black Crowes guitarist Chris Robinson, country scion Shooter Jennings, and Elvis Costello.
It’s an off-kilter mix, to be certain. But here’s the thing: Jenny Lewis has plenty of star presence, and a very nice set of pipes, but her voice is relatively one-dimensional. She obviously has a deep affection for roots music, and it seems safe to say she’d love to be Dusty Springfield or Loretta Lynn, but her vocals lack the heat and raw emotion that many of these songs really need. It’s a fine album, and one whose performances clearly benefit from the live-in-the-studio approach Lewis took with co-producers Johnathan Rice, Dave Scher, and Jason Lader – but as she did on portions of Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis often sounds like she’s just treading water here, doing some technically sound play-acting that never takes the songs as far as they deserve to go.
And yet, again, you’ve got to give her credit. As much as Lewis’ reach exceeds her grasp, the important thing is that she’s still reaching, still doing her best to avoid being pinned down as the “internationally acclaimed indie siren” her publicists are selling. As self-consciously as her music evokes its influences – and as much as Acid Tongue might do nothing more than make you want to listen to some actual Lucinda Williams or Linda Ronstadt – it also bears the unmistakable imprint of an artist following her muse, unafraid of where each step will take her. You can’t help but hope that if you listen long enough, she’ll lead you into some truly unfamiliar territory.