Jenny and Johnny: “I’m Having Fun Now”

This isn’t “California Girls”– or even “California Gurls,” for that matter. On I’m Having Fun Now, Jenny and Johnny make California pop for a different era– music that isn’t sun-kissed so much as sun-scorched. This is a beach record for the bankrupt days, a summer soundtrack for a new recession. For many, it will be the best diversion we can afford.

Incidentally, the album title is a bit of an irony. For one thing, Jenny Lewis– the unquestionable star here, even if she does share the bill with her lesser-known beau Jonathan Rice– has always sounded like she’s having a fair amount of fun. Her persona has long been lent a certain magnetism by her sheer exuberance; even when she’s singing about lost love or sex gone sour, she’s always had a certain giddy energy about her, be it in her Rilo Kiley days or on her two fine solo albums. On Acid Tongue in particular, she dug deep into country-rock and Laurel Canyon folk influences like a kid rooting through a toy box. There was an unmistakable joy to those recordings that ultimately spilled over into Elvis Costello’s Momofuku, and, in the end, to this, the first official Jenny and Johnny duet album.

And this album is, perversely, a little less fun. The enthusiasm in Jenny’s turns at the mike is still there, but this time the proceedings are intermingled with a strange solemnity. This is pop music with a deep undercurrent of melancholy. You’d think it would be different, what with Jenny finally sharing the spotlight with her long-time squeeze– and moving beyond the mommy/daddy issues that popped up on Rabbit Fur Coat and Acid Tongue— but it seems that the times have caught up with our singers, whose lyrics here are filled with barbs. They sing about poverty more than once, and write stories of lovers on the street fending for survival– with a switchblade in their coat, as one song puts it.

But Lewis has never been much of a softie, and her acerbic streak informs the writing here to the extent that it isn’t a recording that offers consolation during trying times; rather, it’s an album that’s all about taking shots at those who succumb to poverty’s myriad temptations. It’s an album about phonies, about folks who are so eager to climb the ladder that they’ll do just about anything– folks who will “suck [their] way to the top” Lewis sings on one song, one of several double entendres that really might be a jab at Katy Perry and her unholy blend of leering sexuality and opportunistic pop hand-me-downs. (There are some equally clever moments elsewhere; whether intentional or not, Jenny and Johnny rewrite a bit of Allen Toussaint‘s “On Your Way Down” here, which sums up this album’s sentiments quite nicely.)

Fittingly, the album is all about surface appeal. Acid Tongue found Lewis digging deep, carving her own niche into the fertile ground of country-roots rock. This one is all about the surface details, the outer veneer that doesn’t go as far into the country-rock woods but instead marries it to R.E.M.-style jangle, folksy overtones, Beach Boys harmonies (or at least She & Him harmonies), and a drum sound that’s straight from the 80s. The recording isn’t as rich as either of the albums Jenny made on her own, but it frequently makes up for it with the very lovely mixing of the two voices, of little flourishes of melody, of an unobtrusive production that allows the turns of phrase (and of the knife) to stand out and show just how clever these two are as lyricists. (Though I suspect that it’s mostly Jenny who runs this department.)

Speaking of which: Johnny’s is the first voice that you hear, but it seems like Jenny takes center stage more often than not. It’s nice to hear them harmonize, and this is surely his biggest-profile gig yet, but it’s hard to deny the fact that his girl just has more charisma than he does. Not that I think he’s sucking his way to the top. He sounds glad to be here, like he’s having fun; and though this isn’t a particularly substantial or innovative recording, I suspect that most listeners will, too.

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