wears the trousers magazine


juliette lewis: terra incognita (2009)
September 15, 2009, 8:31 am
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: , , ,

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Juliette Lewis
Terra Incognita •••
The End

As the antithesis of what a Tinseltown star is typically presupposed to be, Juliette Lewis was the perfect choice to cover David Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group’s ‘This Is Not America’ for last year’s Hollywood, Mon Amour compilation, a set masterminded by Nouvelle Vague co-founder Marc Collin to put a fresh spin on 1980s film soundtracks. Lewis has been hewing her own determined path for years now, in both the film and music industries, flaying off her detractors with an impressive single-mindedness. So when she suddenly gave her former bandmates The Licks the flick in January after five years and two albums, the initial surprise quickly subsided. It’s just the Lewis way. Fast forward 8 months and Lewis insists that we accompany her into Terra Incognita, literally ‘unknown territory’. Despite the Wild West motifs of the (badly Photoshopped) artwork, this is not America either. Welcome to the United Altered States of a drama chameleon, where things – especially people – are rarely quite what they seem.

The disintegration of trust and relationships turned sour are topics that weigh heavily on this somewhat confusing odyssey. Whether “loved by everyone but no one at all” (‘Intro’) or glinting in “a false-coloured world” (‘Suicide Dive Bombers’), Lewis eats outsiderhood for breakfast and gargles with recalcitrance, and that’s not a bad thing at all. There’s a raw and captivating beauty to songs like ‘Romeo’ (its barely discernable spoken-word section aside) and ‘Suicide Dive Bombers’, the latter resonating hard like a lost Belly classic with its accumulating grandeur and offbeat storytelling. Based around a lyric she wrote 15 years ago, it’s possibly the most arresting and complex song in Lewis’s arsenal, transitioning from sad resignation on acoustic wings to a pounding celebration of come-what-may relief. Other highlights include the full-on rock howler ‘Noche Sin Fin’, a hard-hitting dramaturgy of resurrectionist theatre that props up the downtrodden with beefy rhythms and impressively throat-shredding ululations, and the easy pop of ‘Uh Huh’ – the kind of song that a latter-day Liz Phair might write and then neuter in the studio, with surprising shades of Maria McKee in the vocal.

Elsewhere, Lewis abandons the path of moderate resistance to languish stubbornly in some rugged and often uncharming terrain. ‘Female Persecution’ fails to live up to the promise of its title with a half-baked stab at psychedelic rock that mistakes a casual disregard for melody for an important artistic statement. While it hints at a critique of patriarchies that force women to be shrouded, any clarity is lost as the song simply flounders uninterestingly along with laboured vocals that even Omar Rodríguez-López’s textured guitar tones can’t save. The title track disappoints, too, though not through a lack of conviction. Lewis simply sounds worn out, ill-advisedly propagating the band-as-traitors hurt of Kristin Hersh’s ‘Listerine’ with a generic rock treatment that does little to lend grace to her predicament. “Put your hand inside my magic glove,” she grunts unenticingly. Um, no thanks.

But perhaps the album’s worst offender is ‘Hard Lovin’ Woman’. On first listen it’s a smouldering blues nugget, albeit one that shamelessly mimics her icon Janis Joplin; then, with each successive audition, a sort of reverse alchemical transmutation takes place and one is left with an overheated coal that Lewis arduously drags herself over. As an interlude this would probably have worked. At a bloated five minutes, it’s a minor ordeal. The thing is, you simply cannot fault Lewis for pure gutsy cheek, even when it fires off in undesirable directions. Terra Incognita might not always work, it might not always do enough to distinguish itself and do justice to its creator’s ambition, but there’s an admirable heart beating at its centre. “It’s the great rock and roll show / it’s got no place to go,” she sings in ‘Suicide Dive Bombers’, and that one couplet could be seen as Lewis in a nutshell when it comes to the studio. Her natural habitat is the freeform chaos of live performance, true unknown territory where anything can happen. Etched on five inches of plastic, she can lose her appeal.

Alan Pedder
UK release date: 14/09/09; www.myspace.com/juliettelewis

 

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