“I just try to keep the dream alive,” Jenny Lewis declares on “Higher”, one of the nine songs on the debut album from Nice as Fuck (NAF). What precisely that dream may be is hard to say, considering the many divergent projects Lewis has contributed to in recent years.
From the ashes of Rilo Kiley’s dissolution came a successful solo career, punctuated most recently with 2014’s memorable The Voyager. There was also I’m Having Fun Now, the album she made with guitarist and boyfriend Johnathan Rice, released under the name Jenny and Johnny. A friend to many other talented musicians, Lewis has stayed busy, guesting on records and touring with the likes of M. Ward, Ryan Adams, and Conor Oberst. In 2013, she reclaimed her role as a member of The Postal Service when that outfit reunited for a world tour. In short, it seems that Lewis is often dreaming. Now, her latest dream has come to life.
Comprised of Lewis, Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster, and The Like’s Tennessee Thomas, NAF have undertaken a very unique route. They announced their existence by performing at a Bernie Sanders benefit, dropped their first single through an innocuous Father John Misty tweet, and released their self-titled debut to minimal fanfare. NAF appear content to let their music speak for itself. It’s a bold decision but when the results are this good, you can get away with it.
NAF borrow liberally from punk, funk, pop, and more, a refreshing shift in sound for Lewis, who in her solo work has primarily focused on lyrical witticisms and melodic rock with the occasional country twang. There is little twang to be found with NAF — or any texture for that matter. Most of the nine tracks that make up their record are built around fast bass lines and simple percussion, relying heavily on harmonies and vocal delivery to stand apart.
On “Door”, NAF’s first single, Lewis nearly moans the final word when she sings, “If you believe in peace and love/ And the message above/ Don’t close the door.” As the song continues, harmonies set in over her wordless coos. The effect, not dissimilar from what the Watson Twins provided Lewis on Rabbit Fur Coat, is a subtle reminder that NAF is not Jenny Lewis by another name, but rather a new yet still connected trio.
At a brisk 25 minutes, it could be tempting to view Nice as Fuck as a whimsical approach to releasing some B-sides that weren’t fit for The Voyager. But that would ignore the songs’ proper context. Lewis’ lyrics here work towards social commentary where she would otherwise focus on love, self-reflection, and intimate storytelling.
While “Door” does share a message of tolerance and openness, “Guns” fights to convey a sentiment woefully relevant to present times. Bolstered by a bed of synth, the song is a declaration set to militaristic percussion. “I don’t wanna be afraid,” Lewis declares. “Put your guns away.” Later she offers her own proclamation: “The solution is revolution/ Kill ‘em with love.”
While Lewis has never been apolitical, NAF may be her chance to speak to subjects like gun control and social acceptance without reinventing the image she’s built in her post-Rilo Kiley career. For their own part, Forster and Thomas embrace their background role with aplomb. The harmonies are lush, the bass and drums are sharp, and they do well to accept and embrace that the broader appeal of NAF rests on Lewis’ shoulders.
Yes, much of Lewis’ aural aesthetic can be found in NAF’s sound, but the little differences — the tinge of funk on “Cookie Lips” or the bouncing bass on “Angel” — define this record as the work of three people. While it may be true that Forster and Thomas feel less essential than Lewis in the mix, it takes nothing away from what they’ve created together. Whether this surprise offering is the first of many or a one-off effort, NAF justifies its existence as more than a lark or an impulse by having a message and taking a chance.
Essential Tracks: “Door”, “Guns”