One thing Jenny Diane Lewis is not, is a minimalist. Take one of her absolute greatest compositions in a crowded canon: 2004’s “It’s a Hit.” Functionally her old band Rilo Kiley’s very own “Once in a Lifetime,” the song was hella more anxious than Byrne’s, from that “smoking-gun-holding ape” Bush “throwing his own s**t at the enemy” and from a then-new major-label partnership where the threat of no airplay was a “holiday for a hanging.” Deftly, she articulated all that pain through a two-verse build before a boisterous horn hook (countered by subtler glockenspiel), a verse where the two-chord guitar goes rogue with some out-of-pocket doubled leads, finally a bridge-or-chorus, a couple shoo-bop-shoo-bop-my-babys, another bridge-or-chorus, and a firm “yeah” to land it all like an exasperated ta-dah. Catchy as anything on The College Dropout from the same year, you could still argue that for all the moving parts inside “It’s a Hit,” none of them was an obvious refrain and it certainly wasn’t a hit.
Each of Lewis’ tunes is a world in itself: 2002’s “The Good That Won’t Come Out” jumped from B&W lo-fi-with-drum-machine to full-band-complete-with-bells for the final chorus; 2007’s fearlessly disco “Breakin’ Up” utilized a full “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” squad of backup divas. Even 2013’s blessed B-sides unload Rkives was rife with hugeness — rapper Too Short, Blur-baiting woo-oohs, gigantic guitars and mountains of ascendant vocal codas. But in these extravagances lies another thing she is not: an artist who only does what’s expected of her.
So her new trio Nice as F**k and their sudden self-titled release are a surprise in more ways than one: a living challenge to the current singer-songwriters’ landscape and even Lewis’ own fans, to accept yet another iteration of her once-in-a-generation talent, this time with so few frills there’s not even a guitar to be found in its 25 minutes. The acid-bathed, ESG-lite here is a lot further from Rilo Kiley than her three impressively varied solo albums have been.
This makes for far rockier ear-training than Rilo Kiley’s before-their-time ‘80s excursions. Each one of Nice as F**k’s nine songs gives the listener very little to hone in on other than a handful of bass notes (via Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster) and a loop-like drum riff (via the Like’s Tennessee Thomas) that leave Lewis’ voice at its de facto punkest, hovering almost uncomfortably in midair. One could argue that the phantom limb here is not the missing guitar, but the girl-group harmonies you’d expect to fill all the space.
But Nice as F**k are not a “girl group”; they’re a Spoon that owes two dozen quarters to a washing machine. With so precious little to absorb aurally, it’s difficult blocking “Young Folks” out of your head when “Runaway” makes its only move for nearly four minutes, or “Pusherman” when “Angel” makes its. You notice every sparse addition: the world’s loneliest tambourine on “Angel,” the crowd noise and cowbell entering and exiting on “Homerun.” But even an old-school hip-hopper like Lewis is too meaty a melodist to go full-on Cool Kids. So after three tracks, the fourth, “Cookie Lips” vows, “Let’s have some fun,” with some errant pitched-down seagulls à la the Knife) and a spoken bit that ends with “What a dick!”
That’s where Nice as F**k really breaks into a run, with the roll-happy, Pylon-esque “Higher” quickening the pace for the anthemic “Door,” which Santigold’s dull-as-f**k 99¢ could’ve used. “Guns” is Lewis’ most political song since “It’s a Hit,” and it’s a credit to this group’s execution of simplicity that lyrics like “Crisis is not ISIS” and “There are children dying every day” float by as more “Freedom ‘90” than Infant Sorrow.
What does it mean, though, that “Mall Music” — one of the two songs here that’s made ever so slightly less skeletal by groaning synths — is the record’s only drag? “I want to be your everything,” sings the once-grandiose bandleader, who does more with what she’s given when she’s given more. Sometimes more actually is more.