Starting Five: Rilo Kiley
by Chad Jewett
More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, and writers that we love. Today, in honor of the 10th Anniversary of their classic More Adventurous, we look at five essential songs from indie-pop greats Rilo Kiley
“Pictures of Success”, Takeoffs and Landings
“I’m a modern girl, but I fold in half so easily when I put myself in the picture of success.” With that single sentence, Jenny Lewis established the opening parameters of what would be a four-album compendium of Rilo Kiley’s agreeably sad, amiably honest self-mythologizing. As tortuously high-concept and richly high-fidelity as the Los Angeles quartet would grow, the band’s plucky, self-deprecating flare for introspection would remain, as would their taste for making failure, sadness, and ennui sound oddly beautiful, like a late summer day after cancelled plans. More shimmering and minimal than the broader work to come, “Pictures of Success” from Rilo Kiley’s debut LP, Takeoffs and Landings was the closest the band would hew to the earth-toned midwestern emo that always shaded the margins of their sound (especially considering the horn parts that punctuate the song’s spindling guitars). But most memorable is the song’s charming bit of world-building and the interplay of Jenny Lewis’s wry, world-weary humor and Blake Sennett’s reedy, expressive guitar. “Pictures of Success” ends with a big bang (“Ready to goooooooo”), but it also arrived as one.
“So Long”, The Execution Of All Things
A quiet, unassuming passage of storytelling amongst the raised stakes and emotional crises of the band’s first masterpiece, The Execution Of All Things, “So Long” arrived as Blake Sennett’s version of the star-making turn that Jenny Lewis created in “Pictures of Success.” Romantic and forlorn where Lewis’s songs were more commonly realist and bittersweet, atmospheric and sun-faded where the rest of Execution is built to burst in indie-pop high drama, “So Long” manages to serve as a highlight on a just-about perfect album by pausing to take in the scenery. Buoyant and lighthearted in its sadness, and sweetened with fizzing keyboards and airy production from Mike Mogis, the song manages the sort of cheerful glumness that had turned Takeoffs and Landings into an indie classic, while exemplifying the deepened craft and more mature storytelling that made The Execution Of All Things even better.
“Spectacular Views”, The Execution Of All Things
So clearly a prototype for the confessional, sylvan pop-punk of “Portions for Foxes” that certain live recordings carry early ideas for the song in ad-libbed jams, “Spectacular Views” now plays like that later hit’s more wild, summery younger brother. Built around a Superchunk-esque, ultra-minimal riff via Sennett (which see-saws beautifully with Lewis’s similarly compact electric piano lick in high-pop exactness) and one of Jenny Lewis’s finest, most poignant melodies, “Spectacular Views” typified the bruised romanticism and ecstatic fading youth of The Execution Of All Things by plunging into those ideas with reckless abandon. Matching gorgeous images of the Oceanside (spectacular views indeed) to notions of fading love and conflicted memories (“In steep cliffs, rocks all piled up / Mysteries of your passing luck / Ages pass, shells and bits of bone forming new limestone / To give things their turn”), the rousing finale of The Execution Of All Things closes with a conversation between a short, scrappy from Sennett and a last bit of wistfulness for Lewis – the tour de force of their partnership.
“Portions for Foxes” / “It’s A Hit”, More Adventurous
While technically a cheat to declare a tie in a list of five essential songs, Portions for Foxes” and “It’s A Hit” are so wholly complimentary and mirror-imaged in their evocation of the pop-shaped narrative craftsmanship of More Adventurous that they’re almost impossible to split up. Where The Execution Of All Things took a novel’s worth of troubled pasts, hurt feelings, and lost loves and expanded the whole thing to bursting, More Adventurous returned to those ideas again, this time with Motown-level economy. Pivoting between various stories of hypocrisy, self-doubt, and human failure, all in the shape of an alt-country symphony punctuated with Stax horns and keening pedal-steel guitar, “It’s A Hit” begins the album like a mission statement, a clear enunciation of Rilo Kiley’s further-perfected gift for fitting novels into radio hits. “Portions for Foxes” works in the opposite direction, taking the archetypal familiarities of a dysfunctional relationship and zooming in, all while managing a hook-heavy synthesis of The Replacements, Nada Surf, and Lucinda Williams, Saddle Creek’s bucolic indie rock energized by the spiky punk-pop of Merge Records.
“A Man/Me/Then Jim”, More Adventurous
A magnum opus exploration of broken hearts and struggles with the perennial barbs of memory, “A Man/Me/Then Jim” served as the penultimate song for More Adventurous and the band’s last great statement of purpose. Using a modernist blurring of timelines and clever parallel stories to offer three differing takes on “the slow fade of love,” “A Man/Me/Then Jim” (so titled for the three subjects of the song’s shifting, multifaceted story) was the album’s quietest, most resigned span of affecting nostalgia. Looking back, one can hear a triptych of Rilo Kiley’s growth, from the song’s early, minimalist first verse, through the expressive indie-country grace notes of its middle, to a magisterial closing Wall of Sound, Lewis’s refrain about fading love mixing with the deft, compact groove of Jason Boesel and Pierre de Reeder, and the silvery slide guitar and curling acoustic melodies of Blake Sennett, all haloed by one of Mike Mogis’s most sweeping, poignant orchestral productions, a symphony of organs, horns, strings, and pedal steel. Fittingly, Rilo Kiley crafted their masterpiece for a narrative about our fitful relationship with the past and the heartbreaking trouble of saying goodbye.