After making some of the strongest music of 2006 with her solo debut "Rabbit Fur Coat," a low-key alternative-country effort of subtle but potent charms, Jenny Lewis sounded like a completely different woman on last year's highly anticipated Rilo Kiley disc, "Under the Black Light," a pathetically soggy bid at shameless commercial pandering. Thankfully, it seems as if her partner in that setting, Blake Sennett, was the man to blame for the disappointing turn toward mainstream pop, as Lewis returns with a second solo offering that's even more low-key than its predecessor but every bit as sensual and entrancing.
More self-assured vocally, though minus the gorgeous backing harmonies of the Watson twins, the 28-year-old Lewis once again offers wry insights into her struggles with romance and personal development -- "To be lonely is a habit / Like smoking or taking drugs / And I've quit them both / But man, was it rough," she sings in the title track -- while effortlessly incorporating elements of some of the sounds that shaped her, from the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters of the '70s (with echoes of Linda Ronstadt on "Pretty Bird" and the haunting opener "Black Sand") to an imagined collaboration between Randy Newman and the White Stripes (the gleeful murder ballad "Jack Killed Mom") to a mix of alt-country and progressive rock, at least in its multi-part ambition, via a nine-minutes-plus mini-suite/medley ("The Next Messiah").
The 11 songs benefit from the no-frills approach of a three-week recording session more or less live in an analog studio -- even the elaborate strings of "Tryin' My Best" don't sound overly fussy -- and the only misstep is a hip-hop-like roster of unnecessary cameos. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward of She and Him make sense, but Elvis Costello sounds intrusive during his duet on "Carpetbaggers," while the black Crowes' Chris Robinson is just superfluous. But this is nit-picking.
"If you sing a song, sing a song for them," Lewis croons in "Sing a Song," the final track. "For the bats and belfry and the fairies on Main Street / For the deadbeat daddies and the Boulevard freaks / For the little girls with the carousel eyes / And the brick-a-brak finding housewives, losing their minds." Lewis' impressive strength as both a singer and a songwriter is that she makes every listener feel as if her music was crafted just for them.
Lou Reed, "Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse"(Matador)
Discounting the spit-in-your face perversity of "Metal Machine Music" (that infamous double album consisting of nothing but grating, nerve-wracking feedback), "Berlin" is the most difficult album of Lou Reed's long and difficult career. Looking back on the 1973 concept effort during his keynote address at last year's South by Southwest Music Conference, he summed up the themes as "jealousy, peaks of jealousy, and ... [how] that attachment to another person turns into physical abuse because you love them so much," and he peevishly noted that it was universally panned upon its release.
That was not entirely true: The late great Lester Bangs called it "the bastard progeny of a drunken flaccid tumble between Tennessee Williams and Hubert (Last Exit from Brooklyn) Selby, Jr.," and he intended that as the highest of compliments. But in defense of the critics who did diss "Berlin" when it arrived as the follow-up to and antithesis of "Transformer," the most accessible and best-charting release of Reed's career, the complicated tale of a co-dependent, dysfunctional and self-destructive couple addicted to speed and sex not only was difficult listening on an emotional level -- with its recurring refrain of "They're taking her children away" paired with the haunting sound of a bawling infant, "The Kids" alone can make the most chipper candy striper reach for the anti-depressives -- but it also was an overwrought sonic mess, produced with a comically heavy hand and maximum progressive-rock bombast by Bob Ezrin.
(Recruited at the time for his work with Alice Cooper, Ezrin would go on to make "Destroyer" with Kiss and "The Wall" with Pink Floyd. Both of the latter have their over-the-top attributes, but like most of the other albums he's produced, they are worlds away from any understanding of or sympathy with Reed's gutter-punk aesthetic.)
Now, Reed has remade his least-appreciated masterpiece, in Julian Schnabel's concert film "Lou Reed's Berlin" (now available on DVD) and, even better, in the new live album "Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse" (and that's better in the sense that listening without seeing images of ol' granite-faced Lou or an actress portraying the doomed Caroline only helps listeners to conjure even more poignant and horrifying images in their heads). The intense emotions of "Berlin" still are every bit as challenging as they were 35 years ago -- it's astounding to think that three and a half decades of rockers have been unable to top Reed when it comes to chronicling bottoming out -- but the biggest service this 2006 concert recording offers is that the band, the seven-piece orchestra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (all conducted by veteran Reed sideman Steve Hunter) are finally placed in their proper perspective to the songwriter's deadpan vocals. Oddly enough, Ezrin and Reed pal Hal Willner both are listed as producers, but the way this large ensemble is captured with pristine simplicity is pure Willner, and it makes the contrast between the lush sounds and beautiful melodies and the dark themes and harrowing lyrics all the more effective.
As an encore, welcome renditions of the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" (as a duet with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons) and the far more recent "Rock Minuet" (from the 2000 album "Ecstasy") illustrate how elements of both the subject matter and the sound of "Berlin" have always been present in Reed's work. And it all adds up to finally making one of the biggest flops of the artist's career a major winner.