Extremes are of great interest to Jenny Lewis. The singer-songwriter caromed from the spare alt-country noir of her acclaimed solo debut, "Rabbit Fur Coat," in 2006 to the deliciously seedy pop-funk of "Under the Blacklight" the next year with her band, Rilo Kiley.
Lewis's sophomore solo effort, "Acid Tongue," out today, is the sound that happens at the central point between those two poles. What it has in common with its superb predecessors is Lewis's invaluable understanding of what works for her.
Like "Blacklight," "Tongue" rapidly shifts gears between moods and musical styles - woozy pop, stark country laments, jangly garage rock. Lewis's girlish but sturdy voice serves as its unbreakable throughline. From a storytelling standpoint, the darker tales of murder, sin, drug abuse, and backwoods treachery fall more in line with "Fur Coat."
At her best, which she often is here, Lewis reveals her thespian roots. "See Fernando" is a torrent of caffeinated verbiage: "a good buzz, feeling all right, pitch a tent, pop a top, forget about what you ain't got, see the sights, sleep tonight, stamp your feet, turn out the lights." The clattering cross-sticks and hitching guitars help conjure a group of friends on an escapade south of the border.
The surging "Godspeed" puts the listener onto the couch with a female narrator trying to counsel a stubborn friend in a bad relationship over austere piano-and-drums accompaniment that recalls "Ziggy"-era David Bowie. The image of a broken boy driven into a matricidal rage comes alive on the live favorite and White Stripes-y stomper "Jack Killed Mom," which is marred only by a hokey and mercifully brief Johnny Cash-style narration.
The album's intended epic, "The Next Messiah," is a three-part, eight-minute shape-shifter that moves from wriggly, raw-nerve guitar licks to a snakier juke-joint menace, and finally into a kind of country funk as Lewis sings about dirty deeds and delusional lovers. Although she irritatingly insists on pronouncing the title word "moo-siah" for no good reason, the song has a chilling effect and a late-in-the-game back-and-forth with an ominous male voice only adds to the drama.
While a couple of the tales feel designed to shock - like the hypnotic, downbeat title track's remembrances of tripping on acid and tripping into the wrong beds - it's hard to shock an audience when your persona is as enigmatic as Lewis's and your tales are so universally relatable.
Along the way, Lewis gets assists from several high-profile friends including actress Zooey Deschanel of She & Him, the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, and admirer Elvis Costello, who duets with bristly charm on the saucy "Carpetbaggers."
Lewis has said that she's unsure about the future of Rilo Kiley, which is a shame. But the sting of that loss will be greatly eased if she keeps making records like "Acid Tongue."