No. 74: Jenny Lewis, “Acid Tongue”

In the era of Autotune, Jenny Lewis went analog. Acid Tongue is a testament to the sheer power of true musicianship. An organic, forceful album that feels like the upswing of a good beer buzz, it hops from folk to country to blues with impressive ease and effortless charm, and the title track is its triumphant centerpiece.

Unlike the sprawling, ambitious show-stopper “The Next Messiah,” “Acid Tongue” is a sweet, simple and utterly heartbreaking campfire singalong. With nothing but her acoustic guitar and a couple of backup singers, Lewis strips music to its core and proves that the singer-songwriter format can still pack a mighty punch.

Above all, “Acid Tongue” is timeless. So much of the music we consume now is either explicitly (in the lyrical content) or implicitly (the digital recording process) influenced by modern technology, but “Acid Tongue” exists outside of chronology. Before there was Pro Tools and the Internet and after both are obliterated in whatever futuristic technology apocalypse that awaits us, people were and always will be “a little drunk and lookin’ for company.” It’s a profoundly human song, and by far one of the most honest-feeling tracks I heard all year.

80 ’08 (and Heartbreak)

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    I have to say, this album grew on me, particularly after seeing the songs performed live.

  • MayhemintheHood

    2008 was definitely the year that I met a lot of girls obsessed with Jenny Lewis. I honestly didn’t think she had so many fans.

  • Wicked Zoot

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: Amen to that. One of the best live shows I’ve seen in a long time.

  • Lucas Jensen

    Yours points on digital are particularly resonant for me as someone who recorded two analog records this year. When I tell people we used tape they act like we made albums on the moon or something, and, yet, this is how people did it until very recently. I have a feeling that a lot of the recordings of this era are going to sound exceedingly shrill to us in ten years.

  • Ned Raggett

    Mmm…the points re: current technology taken, I’m still annoyed at the idea of ‘true musicianship’ taken in this way. Sorry, but I think that doesn’t depend on analog vs. digital — it’s partially subjective, partially dependent on what one is skilled at, and ultimately comes down to what works for an individual listener. (It may also be generational but after all the ‘that’s not REAL music’ crap I encountered in the eighties and beyond, especially w/r/t anything involving synthesizers and drum machines, I’m somewhat disheartened to see it implicitly recur here.)

  • Lucas Jensen

    @Ned Raggett: Oh, I’m not that type of person! I love all of the crazy technology out there. I have an autotune rackmounted unit which is great fun. I think what she is saying is that it’s refreshing amidst the digital stuff. True musicianship can be any number of things. It’s all about how you use the tools that you choose to use. What I think is funny is that people act like digital is the only way now, and that’s just not the case. There are a lot of different ways to make records.

  • Ned Raggett

    Very true. I’m trying not to rake Kate over the coals here and apologize if it’s coming off that way — there’s plenty of albums and songs I love where that resonance of something ‘real’ is precisely part of the appeal, and is created with due intent that way (my classic example offhand, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock). At the same time I’m reminded of something I read once, wish I could find the reference right now, where Bill Monroe’s legendary bluegrass recordings, for all that they’re taken as a sign of authenticity etc. these days, were in their very nature creations of available technology — performances were recorded and sounded the way they do precisely because of what microphone/studio/etc. technology was at the time. A truism, arguably, but it’s a reminder that our perceptions are shaped by time, circumstances, historical memory and reception, etc. etc. Are Lewis’s songs here really campfire singalong efforts or what we *see* as campfire singalong efforts, what we understand them to be in a glaze of overlapping memories actually possessed or not?

  • Anonymous

    Went analog? Am I just wrong about what Jenny Lewis sounded like before this record or is that akin to, I dunno, Daft Punk going digital?

    I’m just saying, and not that I don’t like this song, but all this talk abut timelessness seems to kind of presume that the technology used here (i.e. steel string acoustic guitar) has been around for the whole history of music and that this singer-songwriter steez is music stripped to its “core”, which I find kind of hard to back up.

  • Anonymous

    x-post there, and Ned of course makes some of the points I wanted to a lot more specifically and acutely, haha.

  • How do I say this … THROWDINI!

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: I have to say, this album grew on me, particularly after seeing the songs performed live.

    As a big Jenny Lewis fan, I’m glad to see this statement, if only because my experience has been just the opposite. I was really excited for this album, but when I started listening to it, I was disappointed because the album just didn’t feel like new material; more like a b-sides compilation.

    The problem was that I saw her touring Rabbit Fur Coat at least 3 times (maybe more, I can’t remember) and it seems like she played all the Acid Tongue songs on that tour, even early on in the tour. I understand that even if she played Rabbit Fur Coat in its entirety, that would not be enough for a full set (and she surely didn’t want to fill out the set with Rilo Kiley songs), but it was a little disappointing to start listening to the cd and realize that none of the songs were “new,” or at least not new to me.

    Maybe its just the nature of being a big fan, its really hard to have your high expectations met and your thirst for new material quenched.

  • MayhemintheHood

    I listen to a lot of recent bands that record analog and “live”, but I guess it’s a big deal to people that mostly listen to Brittney Spears and Fall Out Boy.

  • Michaelangelo Matos

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: I had something similar to this a decade back when I saw Built to Spill a few times in ’97 and was really into the unrecorded songs they were playing. When those came out a year-and-a-half later on Keep It Like a Secret I was initially disappointed because they weren’t quite up to the versions I’d heard live. But Keep It is now my favorite BTS album by some margin.

  • Kate Richardson

    Woo boy you don’t mess around here. Guess I should know that by now, and I truly do appreciate the points raised.

    Perhaps I unintentionally implied that modern recording methods/modern sounds = inferior musicianship. Not my intention, nor what I believe at all.

    I think what I was attempting (and perhaps failing) to get at is that on this record they paired their good musicianship with a recording style that truly suited the sound and it was a magnificent success (in my opinion, at least). I think that had they gone digital it still would have been a great album, but, considering the overall tone of the music, would have perhaps lost something in the process. Obviously you can’t apply the same logic to something like the Santogold album, which I also quite liked this year. It’s definitely a band-specific theory, not my overall opinion on how music should be produced.

    @Ned Raggett: I have to go to class right now and don’t have time to mull this kind of po-mo campfire concept you’ve presented, but it seems interesting. I’ll think about it and get back to you.

    @Maciej: Fair enough on the “core” criticism. I’ll be the first to admit when I’m being a lazy writer. Though I do think there’s a grain of truth to the statement, even if it is expressed in a cliched manner. I mean I guess we could for sure get into what constitutes the “core” of music, if there is such a thing, etc. But all I meant to say was that it’s a simple song done very well.

  • Skwerl

    great fucking album.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @Michaelangelo Matos: Man, I had the same experience with that band. They never used to play the album they were touring behind!

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: Interesting. In contrast to your experience, even though I was a big fan of RABBIT FUR COAT, I didn’t make it out for that tour. The only solo track I’d ever heard Lewis play was on the last Rilo Kiley tour (which was amusingly introduced as “a cover song”). So I heard the ACID TONGUE tracks for the first time on the album.

  • MayhemintheHood

    Kate vs. Ned

    Two Weekly contributors going toe to toe, in a friendly way. I like.

  • Ned Raggett

    “It’s ALL….part of the PLAN…”

    (What can I say, I liked said film a lot. More cohesive thoughts in a bit.)

  • TheRunningboard7

    If I had to sum up a lot of music from 2008, I’d say it is catchy but completely forgettable in mediocrity. For that, Jenny Lewis belongs on this list.

    Plus if you can slow down Matt Kerney’s “Nothing Left to Lose” in your head, the two songs can blend together pretty nicely.

  • Kate Richardson

    @Ned Raggett: Haha I was hoping when I wrote the phrase “outside of chronology” that nobody would overthink it because I find that it’s a very dubious pseudo-intellectual sounding thing. But I thought it was catchy and vaguely captured what I was trying to convey.

    Really the song doesn’t exist outside of chronology because…does anything, really? I mean you could say it sounds like a song from X year, or it was recorded using methods from X era, etc., and in that way it is very much attached to a timeline. But at the same time if you were going to construct a chronology of pop music built around generalizations like “’80s pop-lots of synthesizers” (which I don’t advocate because obviously there’s just too much music in the world to make such a claim, but just for the sake of argument), “2000-2010 glossy autotune pop produced with Pro Tools” you wouldn’t be able to include Acid Tongue in that group.

    So I guess really a more precise term for it would be anachronistic, although that sort of implies that it belongs to a specific time period, which I don’t think it does. I think the success of the song is that it feels (to me, at least) detached from any era. It feels elemental or something (hence my use of the “stripped to its core” cliche). And I’m sure it would have felt that way if it were recorded digitally, but I think the whole vibe that they were going for on this album was tangibility, songs with a certain element of weight or force behind them, and the process of recording onto a physical tape instead of into a computer I think is at least symbolically significant. Which, hey, may well be useless as shit. But oh well, I got a kick out of it.

  • Kate Richardson

    @Ned Raggett: Forgot to answer thing thing about simplicity…

    I think you’ve raised a good question here that I sort of can’t defend myself on, really. I guess it might come down to a matter of personal taste–what you experience as “true”-feeling, and obviously there’s no absolute definition of what truth sounds like in music (or of truth itself?), so for me to imply that the song’s simplicity makes it truer is just flat-out baseless.

    Howeeeveerrr, I think we all have a need to find some sort of truth (that is to say, resemblance to our own emotions and experiences) in art so that we can feel connected to it. I guess, to fall back on my apparently beloved cliches, this would be the definition of something striking a chord. The lyrics of this song struck a chord with me, and the minimalist form of the song highlights the lyrics, so with that sort of roundabout logic (if you could even call it that), then yes, the simplicity of the song made it “truer” for me.

    But you know I also find Sigur Ros’s music to be very “true,” and I don’t think anyone would ever accuse them of simplicity. So again, it’s not some sort of theory that I would ever apply broadly to music in general.

  • Ned Raggett

    Okay, so:

    @Kate Richardson: I like your explanation of the ‘band-specific’ theory, and I can see what you’re getting at here more clearly now, much thanks! (At the same time there’s almost an unspoken question — does what a band/musician does mean that there is always going to be a more appropriate or logical way of recording or presenting it than another way?)

    As for the po-mo campfire, that would take a long time to unpack fully and I need to dash for now, but I think invocations of images like that tie in to the eternal (and ultimately bedevilling) question of going ‘back to the roots’ in some fashion, something which I think the use of the phrase ‘exists outside of chronology’ calls to the fore, implying that something is literally timeless and constant. Perhaps a way to think about it is this — is it a question of simplicity being more true/honest/real (or another adjective of your choice) or is it a question of simplicity as intentionally minimalist strategy? By drawing your comparison to “The Next Messiah,” I’m reminded of a striking contrast in reverse from another album this year — the vaudeville vocal/ukelele strum of “Deep Water” leading into the brutalist heavy tech of “Machine Gun” on the Portishead album.

    More thoughts later, gotta dash.

  • Anonymous

    It really annoys me that her album is on very few best of lists so far. It’s definitely one of this year’s best.

  • Anonymous

    And another thing… Where are the Grammy noms for this album? F*cking Sara Bareilles?!