The first time through Rabbit Fur Coat, Jenny Lewis' first album away from her band Rilo Kiley, one track stands out from the others: a cover of Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care." The charming rendition of a half-remembered hit even features Lewis' pals Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Ben Gibbard, and who are they but Traveling Wilburys for the Stereogum.com set? It's just the kind of mixtape fodder that makes casual listeners snap to attention, and it makes perfect sense as the centerpiece of a singer's side trip away from her day job. But with each subsequent listen, that track fades a bit, overwhelmed by the original material around it. Lewis takes her side trips seriously.
Balancing against the smooth gospel harmonies of Chandra and Leigh Watson, Lewis draws from country and pop to build indelible songs around some capital "T" themes. Loneliness, faith, and the way childhood dramas turn into grown-up problems all get dredged up in one memorable song after another. "It's a surefire bet I'm gonna die / so I'm takin' up praying on Sunday nights," Lewis sings on "The Charging Sky." Pascal may have said it first, but he never thought to set it to a bouncy song with a twangy, George Harrison-inspired guitar line.
God comes up a lot on Rabbit Fur Coat, usually as a distant, unknowable caretaker, as on the skeptic's spiritual "Born Secular." The past, on the other hand, has a powerful presence. On the title track, a fable-like story of faded fortunes and growing up a "$100,000 kid," Lewis draws on her former life as a child star, and on "Melt Your Heart," a resigned lament played at a Mazzy Star pace, she takes inventory of a handful of unexpectedly heartbreaking, mostly discarded items, up to and including a lover who's a perfect match. It's a surefire bet she can't win for losing, but at least she's learned to sing about it.