Early in her show at the Orpheum Theater Thursday night, Jenny Lewis introduced “Carpetbaggers,” a rousing duet that’s a highlight on her new album “Acid Tongue” (Warner Bros.) as a song about “a treacherous woman.” But then, she could have introduced just about every song she sang in the same way. Her 90-minute (including encore) headlining turn featured a collection of self-professed liars, spurned lovers, feckless mothers and their resentful (but ultimately forgiving) daughters.
The erstwhile Rilo Kiley singer performs these songs with a newfound friskiness. Gone is the coyness that turned earlier perfs wispy and mannered. Dressed in form-fitting overalls and a floppy hat, the diminutive Los Angeles native is something of a dynamo, giving the tunes a dangerously seductive heat. She tears into the suburban matricide of “Jack Kills Mom” with ragged, honky-tonk lustiness. “Happy,” from her previous solo album “Rabbit Fur Coat,” is turned into a spare but languid ballad that could have come out of Sun Studios; when her voice caresses the line about her “destructive appetites” it’s with a mixture of pleasure and concern, while the only way the tired and lonely and bloody couple in “The Big Guns” can stop fighting is by pretending that “everybody here wants peace.”
Her mix of country rock and soul has turned shaggier and feistier, propelled by drummer Barbara Gruska’s unerring swing. The revival tent psychodrama of the epic “Next Messiah” has a twangy, garage-rock urgency and the high school thrill-seeking of “See Fernando” is performed with an adolescent jitteriness. Farmer Dave Scher, on steel guitar and keyboards, adds intriguing details such as the moaning synths on the Plastic Ono Band blues of “Bad Man’s World.” Everyone sings, most impressively on “Acid Tongue,” which they performed like a old-time family band surrounding an omnidirectional microphone. You can feel in the influence Elvis Costello (who has been a long time champion of Lewis and invited her and her band to back him up on this year’s “Momofuku”) not so much in the particulars but in the details — the way Lewis’ vocals sit on the chords of “Sing a Song for Them” (her vocals throughout the evening are a delight, as she performs with a looseness and fire not previously apparent), the precise but frayed edges of the arrangements, and in the set’s final tune, a cover, of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts,” sung with rhythm guitarist (and her off-stage companion) Jonathan Rice, that owes much to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ version. Tender and weary, it’s the perfect cap to her perf, a hard-won realization by a singer/songwriter who is maturing by leaps and bounds.