You Are What You Love

09/01/2010 4:00 AM |

I’m Having Fun Now is the debut full-length from Jenny and Johnny, the new project featuring veteran indie rock siren Jenny Lewis and her songwriting boyfriend, Johnathan Rice. It comes at a time in each of their careers when they need to get beyond some of the things that have been holding them back.

Jenny Lewis has the dubious distinction of being far more talented than the entirety of her recorded output would seem to indicate. As far back as The Execution of All Things, the very much underrated Rilo Kiley album from 2002, she’s displayed a keen ear for melody, and an even keener sense of drama and style. Every album she’s made (save, perhaps, for Rilo Kiley’s abysmal swan song, Under the Blacklight) has had its share of near perfect songs, be they classic indie pop, gospel-leaning soul, or Laurel Canyon folk. But she’s never been able to sustain it for too long, drifting all too frequently into dialed in, cliched takes on whatever genre she’s working in at the moment.

Johnathan Rice has the rather more dubious distinction of being known more for the person he’s dating than for the work he’s done, which has been mostly of the terminally boring singer-songwriter variety you’re always hearing in the background on Grey’s Anatomy.

Even at their worst, both Lewis and Rice have always had similar saving graces in that they can straight-up sing their asses off—she does sultry yearning and playful, self-aware complaining as well as anyone, while his clear, deceivingly strong voice lends itself to any number of styles, making him the perfect foil for his chameleonic partner. More than anything else, their vocals take center stage on I’m Having Fun Now, and it makes for a remarkably pleasant listening experience.

They share vocal duties on most songs, with the first single and opening track, “Scissor Runner.” offering a pretty good idea of what’s to follow. Rice takes the lead on the verses, with Lewis contributing only the tail end of a few call and response-type lines. By the time the chorus rolls around, though, they’re singing together. The first time you hear it is an undeniable a-ha moment. If they made only the most terrible decisions from here on in, it still wouldn’t be so bad. They sound wonderful together.

And they sound happy, too, as the album’s title suggests, even though the peppiness of their delivery belies the more grim tone of many of the lyrics. Standout track “Big Wave” laments the country’s sad financial state, and the things we do to escape, from drugs (prescription and otherwise) to casual sex. Elsewhere on the record, they seem exhausted, tired of abusing themselves and calling it part of the life they signed up for. In that way, and sonically as well, there’s a pretty striking similarity between I’m Having Fun Now and It’s a Shame About Ray-era Lemonheads, when Evan Dando enlisted the help of Juliana Hatfield on bass and backing vocals. There’s no clear leader in Jenny and Johnny, but one suspects that will change pretty quickly when they perform live. Lewis has the bigger voice and the bigger presence, for whatever that’s worth.

They could have gone in any number of directions with this album, and it’s to their eternal credit that they made something this straightforward sound so smart, especially at a time when straightforward and smart have come to be viewed as contradictory. This is the best work Lewis has done in years, and by far the best work of Rice’s career.