Welcome to Compendium, a column where we offer a thorough guide to essential artists, bands, genres, and more. Today: Rilo Kiley.
Compendium: Rilo Kiley
by Chad Jewett
Formed in Los Angeles in 1998 by a pair of former child actors, Rilo Kiley swiftly expanded to a quartet, released a well-received EP, and signed to venerable Seattle indie label Barsuk Records. While the band, fronted by Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, offered a strong debut with 2001’s Takeoffs and Landings, Rilo Kiley would prove a far more complete, flexible, and expansive group once it added drummer Jason Boesel, a gifted compositional drummer who showed up right when the four-piece was blossoming out from their early indie-pop, twee, and emo moorings into alt-country, electro, and sun-kissed Laurel Canyon folk rock.
Boesel’s first album with the band, 2002’s The Execution Of All Things, was also Rilo Kiley’s true arrival. Recorded with Mike Mogis – who, at that point, had helmed artistic tour de forces for Bright Eyes, Cursive, Songs: Ohia, and The Faint – and released by Saddle Creek Records, Execution Of All Things was a rich, cinematic breakthrough, one that found Rilo Kiley trading Southern California for the snow-bound DIY community of Omaha as a way of finding itself and its tribe. Execution was the album where Jenny Lewis best balanced her wry humor and her Salinger-esque eye for poignant detail, embedded in songs that ranged from sparkling synth-pop (“My Slumbering Heart”) to ghostly alt-country (“Hail To Whatever You Found In The Sunlight That Surrounds You”) to outsized Superchunk-esque power pop (“Spectacular Views”).
Simultaneously a break-up album and a coming-of-age triptych, The Execution Of All Things is defined by songs whose cheery, major-key tunefulness belies the sadness running just beneath the beaming surface. The gift that Rilo Kiley had for this kind of pop nuance would end up making Execution a classic of Saddle Creek’s untouchable 1999-2005 run. And though Rilo Kiley were outsiders on a label otherwise entirely built of folks from Omaha, the L.A. quartet did as much as any of the label’s signature bands to define the “Saddle Creek sound”. The fact that diehard fans can likely pick out a Bright Eyes member or two on the beloved campfire sing-along “With Arms Outstretched” – a song that defines Jenny Lewis’s ability to balance vampy confidence and sighing introversion – only further cements the ways in which The Execution Of All Things remains an evergreen document of a particular time, place, and scene.
2004 brought More Adventurous, a more polished, focused sequel to Execution, and the ultimate arrival of Rilo Kiley as a master-class pop band. The alt-country overtones of their preceding album were expanded, as were the choruses. On songs like the excellent “Portions For Foxes” — a twangy pop marvel that recalls a more sugary version of Pleased To Meet Me-era Replacements – the band and returning producer Mike Mogis focus every bit of their energy on hooks, bringing Jenny Lewis’s witty alto to the center and then wrapping it in layers of Blake Sennett’s melody-rich Telecaster. Elsewhere, both “It’s A Hit” and “More Adventurous” are wreathed in slide guitars and Nashville-style studio echo, lending the album a certain heartsick glow that carries over from its country-and-western tunes into even its most challenging and defiant numbers, like the discordant post-hardcore of “Love And War (11/11/46)” and the symphonic, multi-suite complexity of “Does He Love You?”. In between the pop numbers and experimental twists are ballads of almost stinging sadness, including “Ripchord” (a show-stopping moment in the spotlight for Blake Sennett) and “It Just Is” – both written about Elliott Smith, who had killed himself during the recording of the album.
But the album’s true masterpiece is “A Man/Me/Then Jim”, a gorgeous, intricate ballad full of intersecting storylines and complex three-dimensional characters whose stories of heartbreak and desire grow into a mini epic. The band’s playing reaches an apex here – Blake Sennett’s guitars are as silvery and radiant as Christmas tinsel; Pierre de Reeder’s bass lends the song a bed of hushed, rounded melody; Jason Boesel’s percussion builds and builds in emotional sync with Jenny Lewis’s quiet, devastating melody: “It’s the slow fade of love / And its soft edge might cut you.” The song adds slide guitar, organ, and horns, turning into a subtle, cinematic wall-of-sound that, even at its most expansive, never buries the poignant story of lost love rooted at its center. The title More Adventurous couldn’t be more fitting for an album that found Rilo Kiley pushing themselves with utter fearlessness.
You’re likely to find partisans for all of Rilo Kiley’s first three albums amongst the band’s devoted fan-base. And while the sheer complexity, songcraft, and sonic beauty of The Execution Of All Things and More Adventurous place those two LPs on their own top tier, 2001’s Take-Offs and Landings is a worthy predecessor. Hints of things to come can be found throughout the band’s Barsuk-released debut, from the trumpet-led bedroom pop of “Don’t Deconstruct” (a song that found Rilo Kiley fitting in with the Saddle Creek stable a full year before they made the move to Omaha) to the witty, wordy twang of “Science vs. Romance”. Fans of Blake Sennett – whose utility as a counterpart and counterpoint to Jenny Lewis is perennially underrated – will also appreciate his more frequent presences as a vocalist here. But Take-Offs and Landings isn’t just notable for the breadcrumb trail it offers to the quartet’s more sophisticated later records. Indeed, the chiming major-key optimism of “Wires and Waves” or the understated sparkle of “Pictures of Success” – an early triumph that features some of Jenny Lewis’s absolute best writing – define a younger, more home-made version of Rilo Kiley that is just as romantic and likable as the exuberant, ambitious band that would define itself through Execution and More Adventurous.
Like so many of their Saddle Creek peers, Rilo Kiley produced a whole lot of B-Sides, non-album singles, compilation tracks, and unreleased extras. And a whole lot of them are excellent. Indeed some – like the irreverent, swooning synth-pop confection that is “Emotional” or the rare Sennett-Lewis duet “Patiently” – are as good as anything on the band’s official album tracks. Thankfully, the band collected most of these odds-and-ends (hardcore fans will note several omissions, including “Xmas Cake” and “Pull Me In Tighter”, the latter of which is only available on a bonus cassette) on RKives, a rarities collection released in 2013. The real joy of RKives is that the 16-track compilation is just about evenly split between songs that would have been a less ambitious band’s go-to lead single (“Emotional”, the bombastic, outsized “It’ll Get You There”) and fascinating experiments that remain wholly tuneful even at their most abstract (the glitchy, laptop pop treat “American Wife” and the Cursive-indebted emo opera “A Town Called Luckey”). Even the collection’s wonkiest stuff – a “Dejalo” remix featuring Too $hort comes to mind – remains interesting and serves as further evidence of Rilo Kiley’s aesthetic adventurism.
2007 brought Under The Blacklight, a darker, more dour album full of seedy story-songs of Los Angeles after dark. Gone was the rugged, youthful optimism of The Execution Of All Things and the effusive, pastoral romanticism of More Adventurous, replaced instead with a bitter realism that too often sours into a cynicism that feels almost willfully artificial. Yet the album still has its share of winning moments, especially opener “Silver Lining” – a gospel-accented soul-pop number that replaces the grandness of More Adventurous with a sleek, pointillist minimalism – and “Dreamworld”, a bleary, psychedelic ballad courtesy of Blake Sennett, whose weary whisper wraps the song in the kind of shadowy haze that the rest of the album tries for but doesn’t often reach.
The band’s debut, 1999’s Initial Friend E.P. (also known as Rilo Kiley) has been out of print for years, with a handful of songs better known than others: namely, “The Frug”, a winning bit of scrappy pop that found Jenny Lewis rolling through a list of dances, both real and fictional, to a pared-down accompaniment of surf-pop guitar and bass-bass-snare drums. The EP has a certain airy, homemade quality to it, a more embryonic version of the bedroom-pop comfort-food that is Take-Offs and Landings. Of greater interest are the many side-projects and solo albums that orbit the Rilo Kiley universe. Blake Sennett formed The Elected, an ongoing project with multi-instrumentalist Mike Bloom, in 2003. The band has released three albums – the electro-pop-meets-alt-country experiment Me First (2004), the breezy So-Cal nostalgia trip of Sun, Sun, Sun (2006), and the harder-to-define stylistic grab-bag that is Bury Me In My Rings (2010). Of these, Me First is likely the best, a strikingly produced confessional full of gripping, highly-detailed stories and imaginative genre mash-ups. Indeed, Me First is perhaps the closest that any release by a Rilo Kiley alum has come to matching the heights of More Adventurous. Jason Boesel, for his part, has proved an in-demand session drummer, showing up on albums by Bright Eyes, Jenny and Johnny, and Ben Lee, while also releasing his own underrated solo album Hustler’s Son in 2010. Pierre de Reeder release his solo album, The Way That It Was, in 2010.
Jenny Lewis, for her part, has been quite prolific, releasing three solo albums – the spare soul-inflected folk of Rabbit Fur Coat (2006), the 60s rock & roll pastiche of Acid Tongue (2008), and the widescreen pop of The Voyager (2014). Of these, Rabbit Fur Coat, which dips into gospel, classic country, Stax soul, and hushed lo-fi pop, stands out most. Lewis has also released one album, I’m Having Fun Now, as half of the power-pop duo Jenny & Johnny and one self-titled album as part of the post-punk trio Nice As Fuck. The Rilo Kiley frontwoman has also done outstanding work in collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello, first as a utility player in The Postal Service on their 2003 classic Give Up and as a guest vocalist on “Roll On”, a highlight of Tamborello’s laptop-pop project Dntel.