Rilo Kiley are a restless lot. They adopt countless musical styles, switch labels with nearly every release and make time for solo careers. Even within a single song, the LA band can jump from theme to theme. The group began as a duo of former child actors Jenny Lewis (vocals, keyboards, bass) and guitarist Blake Sennett; they subsequently recruited bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Dave Rock. While the sound continues to evolve, their most successful material ultimately hinges on the interplay between the charismatic Lewis and Sennett’s supportive guitar work.
Rilo Kiley released its self-titled debut three times, once as The Initial Friend. Mixing Lewis’ tinny singing with a doo-wop chorus and hand claps, “The Frug” typifies the sweetness and immediacy of the earliest Rilo Kiley material and shows her most enduring asset — a playful relationship with even the simplest words — was already in action. “I can do a back bend / I will not call you back.” “Asshole” has Sennett singing lead, backed by Lewis, and pairs acoustic guitar with a spacey, scratched vocal sample. But inexperience overtakes Lewis as she (unintentionally) yodels on “Gravity.”
Rilo Kiley recorded Take Offs and Landings at home and distributed it until Barsuk signed them and reissued it. Rather than the highs and lows the title implies, the record is a collection of placid acoustic and light country ballads that emphasize the clarity of Lewis’ voice. The lyrics are where the action is: “And sometimes planes they smash up in the sky / And sometimes lonely hearts they just get lonelier.” Like the line drawings on the CD insert, Take Offs and Landings has all the proper bones in place, but never becomes flesh. It’s overlong and indistinct, unnecessarily including another version of “Always” from The Initial Friend.
Producer Mike Mogis, co-founder of Saddle Creek Records, and new drummer Jason Boesel were on hand for the recording of The Execution of All Things, which is solid except for Lewis’ high-pitched whisperings about her childhood which crop up between tracks. The Execution of All Things paints the band as natural and approachable, and Lewis as a struggling everywoman. The post-adolescent anthem “A Better Son/Daughter” plays like a mix between a self-help tape and an old-time drinking song.
Mogis returned to record, produce and even play everything from glockenspiel to banjo on More Adventurous, but Rilo Kiley bailed on Saddle Creek in favor of their own Brute/Beaute label through Warners. While More Adventurous is not as consistent as its predecessor, the strength is in the details: salt shakers (“It’s a Hit”), heavy breathing (“Portions for Foxes”), hand claps (“Love and War 11/11/46”) and congas (“A Man/Me/Then Jim”). On “The Absence of God,” Lewis pinpoints Rilo Kiley’s place as the band arcs toward fame, “Folk singers sing songs for the workin’, baby / We’re just recreation for all those doctors and lawyers.”
Live at Fingerprints is Lewis and Sennett alone, performing semi-acoustic versions of songs from More Adventurous and The Execution of All Things at a California record store. The EP includes the previously unreleased song “Somebody Else’s Clothes.”
On an unreleased song called “I Love LA” Lewis sings, “LA, you always let me back in.” The group spent years escaping its hometown, but on their major label debut Under the Blacklight they come home to the glittering, polished sounds of California. Though it’s difficult to discern his contribution, Jackson Browne plays guitar on “The Angels Hung Around.” It’s tough to get close to something that shines so brightly; the band slips away on a polished hook (“The Moneymaker,” “Dejalo”). Heavy production and backing vocals on “Dreamworld” bolster Sennett’s voice until he sounds like Lindsey Buckingham; coupled with the get-up-and-ride rhythm section, that leads straight to Fleetwood Mac. Sennett’s sole contribution to the record is also his best Rilo Kiley song yet.
Sennett formed the Elected and released a solo record entitled Me First (a dig at Lewis’ rising star?), which draws as much from the Grateful Dead and the Eagles as from Sennett’s desire to helm a project from start to finish. His reedy voice lacks the strength to carry an entire record, despite expert lap-steel guitar by Mike Bloom (who has also played with Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins). In 2006, the Elected returned with Sun, Sun, Sun. With the exception of “Not Going Home,” which is as innocuously catchy as it is radio friendly, the rest of the Elected material fades into the background as a pleasing collection — deftly arranged and suitable as a soundtrack for restaurant patio dining.
After singing backup with the Postal Service on Give Up in 2003, Lewis joined with Leigh and Chandra Watson (plus Boesel on drums) to release Rabbit Fur Coat. Exploring subjects beyond her own broken heart (“You Are What You Love”) and broken family (“Rabbit Fur Coat”), Lewis turns her attention to upending religion (“The Charging Sky,” “Born Secular”), using classic gospel harmonies and country instrumentation to impart her message. “Rise Up With Fists” marks a lyrical crest for Lewis, as she nimbly tags “pretty” with a double meaning, “Are you really that pure, Sir? / Thought I saw you in Vegas / It was not pretty, but she was / Not your wife.” In an all-star moment of indie-rock fun, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie/Postal Service), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and M. Ward join Lewis to cover the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” but the song lacks the charge of Lewis’ originals.