In case you weren’t aware prior to right now, the very lovely Jenny Lewis has a boyfriend. You may know Jenny Lewis from a little band called Rilo Kiley, or also through those couple records she’s released under her own name. Her boyfriend goes by the name of Johnathan Rice. He has a music career of his own and has released a couple albums and EPs over the past few years. While Rice has gotten a fair amount of press thanks to his music being used on “The OC”, his career is nowhere near as high profile as his girlfriend’s. Well, now they’re playing together as Jenny and Johnny, and one can’t help but wonder who came up with the idea. Their debut album “I’m Having Fun Now” is out this week, and it pretty much goes as the title suggests. She’s a little bit country, and he’s a little bit rock and roll, and together they make something that sounds a little like both.
Consider “I’m Having Fun Now” to be something of an old school affair, and that’s just the way Jenny and Johnny wanted it to be. The sound of the record is a very classic duet sort of thing, reaching back to the 50s and 60s for inspiration. It is, in many ways, the pair’s attempt to pull off a She & Him, the Zooey Deschanel/M. Ward collaboration. The main difference between the two projects is that the creative divide is clear-cut in She & Him, where Deschanel does virtually all the vocals and Ward handles guitars and arrangements. Jenny and Johnny is extremely interactive by comparison. As they both have singer-songwriter credits to their names, sometimes Jenny will take the lead on a track, and other times Johnny will. They’ll also lend backup vocals and other small singing elements to each other’s songs. A few times they even harmonize their voices for an entire song. For what they’re looking to accomplish, it works quite well. Almost every track is pretty lighthearted and bouncy, good enough to keep your toes tapping and heads bobbing. It sounds like they really enjoyed making this record, and in turn there’s a lot to enjoy while listening to it.
Here’s the thing – there’s a reason why Jenny Lewis has attracted so much attention throughout her career. She’s got an exceptional singing voice, is an impeccable lyricist, and pretty much kicks ass on guitar as well. Johnathan Rice, on the other hand, is just enough of a talent to get signed and sell some records. There’s a reason why he hasn’t reached the levels of popularity and critical acclaim that similar singer-songwriters have (see: Pete Yorn, Ryan Adams, etc.) in recent years. So by teaming up, Jenny and Johnny split the balance between amazing and mediocre pretty evenly. Really what happens is that every time Jenny makes her vocal presence heard, she stomps all over Johnny’s comparatively weak singing. To be clearer, his vocals aren’t bad in the least, they’re just sort of wispy and unmuscular and pale in the face of what Jenny is doing. As to the songwriting, it’s all pretty good. Jenny and Johnny have been writing music together for a few years now, as he helped out on her second solo album “Acid Tongue” and she helped out with his second record “Further North”. They do fine on the words. It’s the execution where the mixed bag enters the fray. It stands to reason that if there were more Jenny and less Johnny on this album, it’d be a better record overall.
While preparing to promote “I’m Having Fun Now”, Jenny and Johnny have been doing a fair number of interviews lately. The way they explain the origins of this project make a fair amount of sense. They’ve been working on each other’s music for awhile now, they’ve been touring together and since they’re also in a relationship, this just made a lot of sense. Additionally, both of them have gone on record saying that being a solo artist is a challenge, having to carry the burden of an entire record on your shoulders without other band members to share it with (yes, most “solo” artists have backing bands, but that’s not the point and they don’t share any credit for the music). Jenny and Johnny was really born out of both wanting to make more music but not alone. As sensible as that may be, “I’m Having Fun Now” kind of hurts both their solo reputations. Longtime fans of Jenny Lewis will be upset that Johnny keeps stepping on some of these melodies. And Johnathan Rice spends much of the record getting steamrolled by his girlfriend’s easy charm and strong musical talent, so it’s sort of embarassing for him. Lightening up a bit though, Johnathan Rice is not a BAD artist by all means and he is legitimately talented to the point where his career to this point is justified. This record is just the equivalent of having some relatively indistinguishable NBA player face off against Michael Jordan in his prime. The guy was good enough to get to the NBA, but he’s no superstar just as Johnny is good enough to be signed to a label and tour nationally, but he’s not of the same caliber that Jenny is. Ignoring the two talents behind this project though, “I’m Having Fun Now” is a pretty nice folk and alt-country record that should satisfy a whole lot of people. Try not to criticize it too much (as has been done here), and it’s extremely easy to like. This probably isn’t intended to be anything brilliant or revolutionary, so you could say it serves its purpose exactly. Give it a try if you’re looking for an easy and breezy record to listen to while hanging out with friends on a lightly chilled fall evening.