Rilo Kiley was one of my very fave rock/pop bands of the Oughts… I really-like-to-love their four original albums, Takeoffs and Landings (2001), The Execution of All Things (2002), More Adventurous (2004), and their attempted/ unsuccessful major-label mainstream/ pop bid, Under the Blacklight (2007). (My favorite is More Adventurous.) (There’s also the Jenny Lewis solo album Rabbit Fur Coat which I kind of forgot about, need to go back to that one… and it looks like she had a second one that I did not even know about.) So I was happy to get this new odds-and-sods unreleased collection, RKives, which is of high consistency and offers a good tour through their various sounds & styles– indie pop, Nashville-y faux country, folky, rock and roll, even a dance-rap collaboration with Too Short (that one maybe a bad idea). You can get the MP3s on Amazon for $7.49.
I’d always wondered where they got the band name, and it turns out to be pretty funny: “On the syndicated radio show Loveline in August 2005, [Blake] Sennett explained that he had a dream in which he was being chased by a sports almanac: “when it got me, I leafed through it…and I came upon an Australian rules football player from the 19th century named Rilo Kiley. It’s kind of embarrassing.” When asked by co-host Drew Pinsky if he had ever seen this name in reality, Sennett said, “I don’t think so, I don’t think that character exists.”
I think I’d put Jenny Lewis with Stephin Merritt and the Drive-by Truckers guys as, IMO, the best American singer-songwriters of that period (late 90s-late oughts) working within a pop/rock approach. She was a former child actress: made her debut in a Jell-O commercial; appeared in teen movies like Troop Beverly Hills. Most of Rilo Kiley’s music didn’t exactly fit with what you might expect from someone with that backstory, sounding more like smart-English-major fare: literate, well-crafted and -played, with thorny, ironic lyrics. Lewis became an indie-pop female star in a Liz Phair mode: smart & sexy, feminist, frank about sex but with a pastoralism in the generally pretty music. Then Under the Blacklight felt like a concept album about a seamy L.A. underworld of “money for sex” and other varieties of selling oneself– perhaps an acknowledgment of the Hollywood sleaze that Lewis must have known about from her child and teen-actress days, and maybe making an implicit point about the process of signing with Warner Bros. (Being a sexy singer for a pop band must sometimes feel like “money for sex.”) I think a lot of fans found it disappointing, and I didn’t care so much for the album’s first single (“the Moneymaker”– kind of hard rock, sounds almost like Heart?), but I liked the attempt to go somewhere new and I think at least a few of the songs are totally brilliant, e.g. these two:
This one the “money for sex” song:
Considering Lewis, Merritt and the Drive-by Truckers’ Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley together underlines the pull of country music on any pop songwriter these days who cares a lot about storytelling. Country is so dominant as the mode for songwriting of this type that even artists like Lewis and Merritt may feel compelled to drop in and out of country or country-inflected modes. (Merritt a more marginal case: I’m thinking of the Magnetic Fields’ The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994), a kind of thematic “country music” album.) It’s almost as if, when you write a song in any genre that tells a story, you are in effect working within country music, even it can only be recognizable as such with a certain accent and particular references.
I should say something more specific about Rkives. (Oh– I just got the title– say it out loud if you didn’t.) Maybe this is the obvious single: a bubblegum dance tune revealing brief glimpses of heartache: “And I can do the frug/ I can do the Robocop/ I can do the Freddie/ I cannot do the Smurf/ And I can hate your girl/ I can tell you that she’s real pretty/ I can take my clothes off/ I cannot fall in love.”
Here’s a video from 1999: