Anniversary Records: Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous
by Chad Jewett
More Adventurous arrived as the crest of a mid-2000s wave of strikingly autumnal, literate indie rock. Rooted in a firm sense of place, and specific enough to populate its world on a first-name basis and animate its tangible emotions with warm blood, Rilo Kiley’s third album was an achievement of verdant, scrappy autobiography and everyday romance. Released between the cinematic vividness of Death Cab’s Transatlanticism and the aesthetic wanderlust and homey self-mythology of Bright Eyes’ dual Digital Ash/Wide Awake experiment, More Adventurous managed the joyful pulse of both, a densely knit sonic quilt that somehow managed to draw one’s eye to all the places where it was most lovingly threadbare. Rilo Kiley figured out pop songs then scuffed them up just enough to seem like sun-faded curios. Released near the dead center of indie rock’s decade of real ascension, the album was one of the genre’s finest hybrids of confessional short story and classical loveliness. There were records that grasped for greater depths of modern fiction (say The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree or Cursive’s The Ugly Organ – which Jenny Lewis contributed to), and others that were more assuredly pop-crafted (though not many), but none that knitted stories so striking into surfaces so dazzlingly embracing. You’d be hard pressed to find another LP that fit narratives as rich and granular into engines as brightly efficient as “Portions For Foxes” or “Accidntel Deth”. No album of that era was so funny in the face of its own sadness, so specific in its universality. In a sense, More Adventurous was the album that really sorted out what indie-pop meant: life’s tangible realisms, carved into choruses.
The record also felt like an arrival, the record where Jenny Lewis finally figured out the economy of her own gently jaded language, where Blake Sennett and Mike Mogis (who had already produced the band’s earlier, and somehow just as brilliant, sophomore album, The Execution Of All Things) found the sparkling center of the band’s swirling, laptop-Technicolor aesthetic. “It’s A Hit” begins dappled with far-off ricochets of pointillist guitars, arriving like a memory, the thrift-shop emo-country of Execution still reverberating and leaking into the more assured, muscular world of More Adventurous. Today the album feels special for being so lived-in; “It’s A Hit” begins like it’s just starting over. The chords beneath those sparkling echoes are crisp and fall-like and the song bronzes into indian summer as horns and keening slide guitar, chirping glockenspiel and beds of lush, movie-magic strings fill in the blank spaces. Listening to the song now, one can still find thrilling beauty in the way the band grows and grows as the song keeps moving, past the humble Midwestern reveries of Execution through to something more achingly bright and lushly symphonic. The song expands until its last crescendos are almost overwhelming, every square inch glimmering in its own way.
Jenny Lewis’s narrative rotates between politics (the first verse could only really be about George W. Bush and neoconservative blunders), to post-modernist doubt (“The house, a car, a thoughtful wife / Ordinary moments in his ordinary life”) to self-critique (“Any idiot can play Greek for a day / And join a sorority or write a tragedy”), as complete and embracing as the pop quicksilver around it. Though Lewis and Sennett rarely sang together (only “Patiently” comes to mind), “It’s A Hit” might be their greatest duet, a lovingly crafted call-and-response between Lewis’s conversational melody and Sennett’s curling, reedy Telecaster; the singer’s confessionalism (“…And articulate all that pain / And maybe you will get paid; “Gotta write a hit / I think this is it / It’s a hit”) haloed by spindling guitar. Later, Lewis’ gallows-humor chorus (“It’s a holiday for a hanging”) is dotted with Sennett’s Beach Boy harmonies (“Bop-ba-ba Bop-ba-baaaa”), a part that is eventually overlaid with horns and ends up being maybe the central sound of More Adventurous, a light-hearted, near-instinctual melody set atop a song about withering self-doubt.
That theme of polishing sadness into a diamond luster courses through More Adventurous. “Does He Love You?” is achingly sad, Jenny Lewis managing an embodiment of uneven love and dashed hopes that exudes weariness, finding the worn bottom of her expressive alto. Yet the music surrounding the song’s bitter narrative of betrayals and broken promises is startlingly gentle and radiant, the sound of a music box in an abandoned house. Mogis, fresh off the high-art orchestration of Lifted and The Ugly Organ manages something similarly dense here (just as Rilo Kiley was figuring out how to synthesize their big-hearted excesses into svelte lightning strikes, so too was Mogis perfecting his rural-orchestral production style), silvery banjo and tick-tock electric guitar glint beneath leaf-falls of mellotron and pocketwatch drum programming. The real marvel of “Does He Love You?” is the way the song manages to respond to Lewis, the way Jason Boesel – a drummer sympathetic and intuitive enough to almost always be someone’s studio-and-tour percussionist – both guides and follows the narrative, the dazzlingly responsive beds of tired-sounding guitar that Blake Sennett layers around the song’s various asides, epiphanies, and curses (there is a jittery riff that ebbs and swells to Lewis singing “And the two of you will soon become three” and a burst that accompanies “He will never leave you for me” that remain breathtaking). Like “It’s A Hit,” “Does He Love You?” expands almost to bursting; but where the former builds with something like wry wildness, the latter crests with melodrama until a string quartet subs in for Lewis’s jaded narrator.
As with “It’s A Hit,” “Portions for Foxes” begins with a blanket of echoes, a woozy patchwork of faded programming and dotted guitars swelling into the most agile, effortlessly brilliant song the band would ever write. Taking the lemons of “Does He Love You?” and making lemonade, “Portions For Foxes” breaks down Jenny Lewis’s self-immolating humor (“There’s blood in my mouth ‘cause I’ve been biting my tongue all week”) into its most efficiently marvelous absolute; the pinging guitars that paint the album are here reduced to pop minimalism, Blake Sennett finding one of his finest riffs by reducing his taste for symphony into a taste for symmetry (the band was never closer to Superchunk and K Records than they were here). Pierre De Reeder and Jason Boesel don’t just move in locked tandem, but create the bruised thump-pulse of “Portions for Foxes,” the dull pain that murmurs beneath the reckless abandon sparking Lewis’s lovely melody, Sennett’s ecstatic guitar. “You’re bad news / I don’t care I like you.” This is what I mean when I talk about the serendipity of More Adventurous, the ways in which the album manages to relay difficult humanism and painterly storytelling with the moving sinew of pop music. Arriving after the passion-play excess of “Does He Love You?”, “Portions for Foxes” manages the same moving emotional realism with a quarter of the language, with guitars pared down to lengths of ribbon, with Mike Mogis’s (and, here, Mark Trombino’s) knack for indie-pop Walls of Sound framed into sudden poignant bursts and giant, embracing choruses. “Portions for Foxes” reduces the way sugar does over a stove – into something sweeter, yet intangibly complex.
Yet there’s even further reduction in “Ripchord,” Sennett’s sole feature moment and the album’s most rustically minimal interlude. Barely breaking the two-minute mark, the song is a wooly, expressive eulogy for Elliott Smith; yet for all the poignancy of its narrative (“And I was finally having a good day / When I found out we’d lost you”), the real ache of “Ripchord” lies in Sennett’s free-form, naturalistic performance, channeling the bitter animation of Loudon Wainwright III as Sennett hums a phantom trumpet melody or lets himself swell slightly out of tune as the song reaches a climax. That Sennett does most of his communicating via guitar and his sonic imagination for the rich textures of More Adventurous is both one of the album’s greatest boons and one of its few missed opportunities. Blessed with a voice that manages imperfection like a method-acting tool, Sennett’s work in The Elected has always sounded the most like the complex post-collegiate pop of Rilo Kiley, even without Jenny Lewis’s powerful sense of melody. Albums like the underrated, brilliant Me First lived most saliently in the same world as The Execution of All Things. Here, “Ripchord” is a brief, tender pause, a life-sized bit of rumination amongst the album’s otherwise sweeping gestures.
The midnight introspection of “Ripchord” comes to serve as a drawn curtain for the brightened Stax-worship of “I Never,” the album’s most expressive show-stopper, and perhaps its most well-loved song. Beginning (uncharacteristically for this album) with Jenny Lewis’s voice, unadorned as she announces “I’m only a woman”, the song soon settles into a breezy soul waltz, electric piano dancing beneath Lewis’s Dusty Springfield-esque tour de force performance – likely the one she’ll be remembered for someday. As free-range as Sennett is on “It’s A Hit,” Lewis is equally explosive here, climbing up and up her range as she vamps on the word “Everything,” cycling through her gold-dusted falsetto in certain spots, finding untapped grit in others, squeezing everything out of the phrase “All the good and the bad” — a relatively perfect metaphor for the album and the way it works its subtle, whip-smart variations on classical pop and record-store artisanship. It’s a star turn for Lewis, unequaled in her discography and seemingly effortless in its drama, its affection for soul music, its sexiness and its self-possession. The song seems to end, then returns with Blake Sennett’s winding, firecracker guitar solo, nearly as legendary amongst a mini-generation of indie-rock listeners as Lewis’s definitive vocal, and a startlingly literal an embodiment of the songwriting duo’s competition-as-teamwork strategy.
The album’s middle span works through quieter, more earth-toned versions of the novelistic pop of “It’s A Hit” and “Portions for Foxes.” “The Absence of God,” “Accidntel Deth,” and “More Adventurous” all trade in variations of agreeable, sun-dappled guitar pop, carrying the last, wheat-straw memories of Rilo Kiley’s time on Saddle Creek Records, the last reedy memories of the Midwestern label’s golden age. “Accidntel Deth”, produced by Jimmy Tamborello (check the “Dntel” reference in the purposely-misspelled title), layers a patina of 0s and 1s over the Rilo Kiley’s homespun magnetism, lending a digital glow and a laptop adventurism to an album that largely skews toward the organic and bucolic, even at its most densely latticed. Studio-modernist noises swoon and pock the song’s atmosphere and fill its quietest moments; sonar keyboards poke around Lewis’s acoustic strums; skittering programming accelerates the song’s bouncing 2nd-person storytelling. Perhaps the record’s most nimble passage of literal poetry in motion, forcing Lewis to cycle through childhood traumas and adult frustrations as drum machines and confectionary keyboards keep moving to big, epiphany-shaped choruses, “Accidntel Deth” is perhaps the hidden gem of More Adventurous.
Except that everyone forgets about “Love and War (11/11/46)”. Sharp and brittle where so much of More Adventurous is warm and rounded, starkly bitter where most of the album is more defined by wry humor than actual anger, “Love and War” sits on the far edges of the record’s center of gravity. Built around a dissonant shard of post-hardcore guitar and a woozy chord progression that’s never wholly major or minor, the song further cuts away at anything remotely smacking of excess until Jenny Lewis comes to a sort of absolute example of her bittersweet realism: “All is fair in love, and we’re in love / Now that everbody’s dead we can finally talk.” The song keeps moving in that acerbic plain-spokenness, the spaces between sentences either jangling prettily or curdling into dissonance. “Love and War” is compact and nervy and unsettling; for all the ways it resembles the pastel melodic punk of “Portions for Foxes” the song is also resolutely unwilling to entertain that song’s optimism. A final verse uses the sad old age and death of a World War II veteran as a metaphor for bitter reminders of human nature, Blake Sennett’s vaguely atonal central riff ending each sentence with a nagging echo. Perhaps the song seems less loved because it doesn’t flirt with the silver linings of even the saddest and most angry of More Adventurous, yet there’s a sense of intrepid forward motion that remains singular in Rilo Kiley’s discography. For all their gift for human comedy, the band was most vividly, sharply in sync on a song about abject failure.
But the hard feelings and caustic punch of “Love and War (11/11/46)” give way to the pastoral triptych of “A Man/Me/Then Jim” – the single finest song Rilo Kiley ever wrote, and the climax of More Adventurous. A Joni Mitchell-esque blossom of spangling acoustic guitar, sighing pedal steel, funereal brass, and detail-rich storytelling, “A Man/Me/Then Jim” took the difficult emotions and lost characters of the album and set the whole collage into dizzying, cinematic motion. A daring narrative experiment that begins at the end then offers a touching aside before providing the beginning, the song depicts a pair of one-time lovers mourning a mutual friend, only later filling in the details of the friend’s emotional desperation and eventual suicide. In between Lewis inserts the story of a door-to-door saleswoman trying to fight through equally door-to-door rejection (“And as I turned her down, I always do, there was something trembling in her voice”; “Well my husband’s leaving and I can’t convince him to say”), a nifty parallel echo of the rejection that occurs at Act One’s funeral (“And at the wake I waited around to see my ex-first love”; “And I remembered why I loved her and I asked her why I drove her off”) and, heartbreakingly, the subject’s last attempt at reconciliation with a past love in Act Three (“Diana Diana Diana I would die for you / I’m in love with you completely, I’m afraid that’s all I can do”; “You can sleep upon my doorstep, you can promise me indifference, Jim / But my mind is made up and I’ll never let you in again”).
Throughout the song Lewis moves between narrators and subjects, men and women, past and present, embodying that sense of déjà vu that floats in the ether around “It’s A Hit” and “Portions for Foxes” as the past is relived at the end of “A Man/Me/Then Jim.” Lewis’s performance is a photo-negative match of “I Never,” gentle and care-worn where “I Never” is brassy and bulletproof, conversational and airy where “I Never’ is explosive and massive. Around the song’s tender melody Blake Sennett’s multiple guitar parts are carefully stitched like a wreath of autumn leaves; Pierre De Reeder’s bass is pliant and expressive, punctuating the last verse’s rejection with a descending line like a dropping heart; Jason Boesel’s percussion rolls amiably, the only real constant amongst the song’s poignant changes. Mike Mogis lends a rich, expansive backdrop, moving and lustrous — like so much of the album, one marvels at how nimbly the widescreen sonics of “A Man/Me/Then Jim” are made to respond to and empathize with Lewis’s damaged characters. A soft, cooing organ marks an early pause; echo-drenched slide guitar italicizes one resolution; a trumpet throbs over another. When Lewis finally returns to the song’s central notion – “The slow fade of love” – one last time, the whole melancholy symphony rises to match, a parting example of the ways in which Rilo Kiley found triumphant radiance in sadness, celebrated humanity in all its spectacular shortcomings and optimistic potentials. In the golden swell that forms the dazzling outro of “A Man/Me/Then Jim” I think we see Rilo Kiley at their most convincing, the best they would ever be at finding sweetness in failure. The band saved their magnum opus for the closing movement of their greatest album, a wondrously intuitive five minutes of bone-deep empathy, the band as in tune to the cinematic motion of the song’s story as Jenny Lewis is to her characters. Spend enough time with the song and you fall in love with those reverberating guitars, lancing across that eclipse of a refrain like comets; you can hear the horns burn themselves out like embers; you can sense that organ burbling on eternally. All of that melody cycles and cycles until it’s out of the frame, until you’re left with late summer quiet, turning into fall. It’s the slow fade of love.