First things first: I heart Jenny Lewis. Blogger cliche? Yup. And I take full responsibility. The new album? I like it a lot, especially when listened to all the way through (I think the big picture works better than the singles).
That said my heart sank a little when I read this New York Times profile. Says Miss Lewis: "I find most modern country virtually unistenable."
I hate that snobbery. I've mentioned before that I loathe the old "I like all music except for country" trope; of course, that line doesn't really work anymore, what with the recent (and largely deserved) hagiographic treatment of Johnny, Loretta, and Dolly. So now the new line is "I like country music, just not modern country music."
For one, I don't buy for a second that Jenny Lewis has spent any real time listening to modern country radio. (Full admission: I haven't really either, but I'm not the asshole making dumb blanket generalizations.) I'm guessing that this is based on the indie-kid notion that modern country music is encapsulated wholly by what's played on the radio. Can we count Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Old 97's, Gillian Welch*, Nickel Creek, and Lucinda Williams as contemporary country? Or would their inclusion screw up Lewis's/indiedom's tired snobbery?
But let's forget about those KCRW/Starbucks-approved singer/songwriter types and get a little more radical: contemporary country that's played on the radio isn't all shit. I know. Stunning. An example: the first time I listened to Lewis's new record, I was struck by a lyric that goes "When you're sleeping with someone who doesn't get you / You're gonna hate yourself in the morning." It's impeccably delivered, but I couldn't help but think of Lee Ann Womack's "I May Hate Myself In the Morning," wherein our heroine makes a drunk dial, fucks an old boyfriend, and concludes "I may hate myself in the morning / but I'm gonna love you tonight." Womack's song is not only smarter and bolder, it was a huge country radio hit. (I'm not the only one who made this connection.)
Want more? You can't tell me that you wouldn't take Miranda Lambert's "Kerosene," a country hit about getting over heartbreak via arson, or Brad Paisley's "Alcohol," a radio staple about a love/hate relationship with getting drunk, over one of the approximately 9,732 solipsistic dirges that Ryan Adams released in 2005**. So there are three of the biggest country hits of 2005, all of them expertly crafted and immensely entertaining. And that's just based on my cursory, passing knowledge of current commercial country music; I bet there are dozens of songs that are in the same league. (And the list expands greatly if you include the aforementioned KCRW/Starbucks types.)
Don't get me wrong, should Ms. Lewis be in the market for a nice, Jew-friendly goy, I'm more than willing to overlook this bout of snobbery.
Oh, and go buy Rabbit Fur Coat. It really is an excellent collection of Nyro'd-out country. (And, yes, I even like that Traveling Wilburys cover featuring grumblegrumblegrumble Bright Eyes.)
* Have you heard Gillian's raw take on Radiohead's "Black Star"? If not, get over to the iTunes store and shell out the 99 cents.
** MEMO TO RYAN ADAMS: please, please, please reform Whiskeytown and write songs like you did circa 1998-2000. Thanks.