Somewhere along the way, Jenny Lewis decided that she wasn't an indie rocker but that she was a lady of the canyon, a singer/songwriter spinning stories on her own instead of languishing in a band with her ex-boyfriend. By the time of Rilo Kiley's too-eager-to-please crossover attempt Under the Black Light in 2007, being in Rilo Kiley was indeed languishing for Lewis, as the group muddled through tight-fisted funk harshly framed by an over-lit production. Acid Tongue, Lewis' second solo album, acts as a rebuke to all the considered calculation and perfunctory polish of Under the Black Light. Nothing about Acid Tongue feels over-thought, a problem that plagued both Under the Black Light and her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, whose rustic country-soul vibe occasionally played like a studied pose, particularly as Lewis picked up on every one of Elvis Costello's overheated literary lyrical tics. Experience -- either life or professional, it doesn't really matter -- has sanded away much pretension within her writing, taking Lewis down to her chosen foundation: early-'70s West Coast rock, rooted in country-rock but touching on gospelfied blues and R&B, pitched somewhere between Laura Nyro and Bonnie Raitt, colored by spooky ballads and sweeping strings swiped from early Elton John.
As a solo artist, Lewis is a proud traditionalist, adhering to the constructs and conceits of classic singer/songwriters, which can come across as affectation if she's too careful to follow conventions, like she was on Rabbit Fur Coat. In stark contrast to that 2006 LP, Acid Tongue is open-hearted and thrillingly alive, an album that's all about a live band making a big, joyful noise in a small room. This was largely recorded live in a short span of time and it feels that way: when it rocks -- as it does on the furious "See Fernando" and "Jack Killed Mom," both picking up speed like a runaway locomotive -- it's invigorating, while softer moments like the girl-groupish "Trying My Best to Love You" have a warm intimacy. There's a communal vibe here, which is only appropriate as these sessions had a revolving open door, bringing in plenty of friends and guests, including old reconstituted hippies like Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, wannabe troubadours like Lewis' boyfriend Johnathan Rice, both halves of She & Him, and Jenny's idol Costello, who appears for a rip-roaring duet on "Carpetbaggers" and lends his protégée some of his Imposters, including drummer Pete Thomas who gives this a wallop.
This old-fashioned jam session gives Acid Tongue a crackling vitality but what's remarkable about the album is how much more comfortable Jenny Lewis seems here, as both a singer and writer. The vigorous music undercuts any lingering stodginess from Lewis' classicism but she's also shaken off the cobwebs on her writing, mastering an elusive, open-ended melancholy that makes "Black Sand" truly haunting and not wasting space even when "The New Messiah" spills out to upwards of ten minutes. Lewis isn't exploring new territory here; instead she's digging deeper, tossing out what hasn't worked and sharpening what has, finding a way to carve out a distinctive voice within a tradition instead of redefining the style. That's tough work, as it takes time to hone those skills, but Acid Tongue is where Lewis finally pulls it all together and delivers one killer of a record.