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Trace Rilo Kiley’s indie-pop constellation in under an hour

Rilo Kiley (Photo: Wendy Redfern/Getty)
Power HourPower HourPower Hour creates one tight 60-minute set from a musician’s discography or a genre, picking both big hits and deeper cuts.

A lot of American bands, intentionally or not, eventually wind up showcasing a star member: in the parlance of Almost Famous, a frontman or a “guitarist with mystique.” Beloved ’00s indie rockers Rilo Kiley represent both the exception and the rule. The band’s work was often greater than the sum of its parts, yet became known, to some degree, as a vehicle for de facto frontwoman Jenny Lewis. Lewis co-wrote many of the band’s early songs with Blake Sennett, the band’s talented guitarist (with or without mystique) and sometime singer. (Lewis and Sennett were also both child actors, and romantically involved in the band’s early days.) They were joined by bassist Pierre De Reeder and drummer Jason Boesel. Eventually, the band fragmented and split, with Lewis releasing a series of solo and solo-ish albums, and Sennett concentrating on other bands—most notably The Elected, who have released three albums to date.

Despite the eventual attention imbalance, Lewis didn’t seem to be making a grab for the spotlight during her Rilo Kiley days. Quite the contrary: Her career is full of collaborations with a variety of co-writers, producers, and close friends. Many Rilo Kiley songs from their first two albums, Take Offs And Landings (2001) and The Execution Of All Things (2002), are credited to both Lewis and Sennett. While later albums More Adventurous (2004) and Under The Blacklight (2007) have more segregated songwriting, Lewis doesn’t appear averse to playing with others and giving them credit; even as she’s embarked on a successful solo career, only two of her five albums are credited to her name alone. That group of five includes a short self-titled record from her new supergroup, Nice As Fuck, who surprise-released their album earlier this month after forming at a Bernie Sanders rally in early 2016.

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No Nice As Fuck tunes appear in this Power Hour—they’re enjoyable, but slight and minimalist by the standards of Lewis and Sennett’s best. But this playlist does include other songs from Lewis and Sennett’s projects outside of Rilo Kiley (several of which include go-to drummer Boesel, apparently a friend to all). Neither Lewis nor Sennett has found other collaborators that complement each other quite so well; Execution remains the best album either of them have played on, and Rilo Kiley’s discography offers more than enough material to sustain two hours of great music, let alone one. But listening to often-excellent selections from Rilo-adjacent albums (two of which recently celebrated their shared 10th anniversary) is unusually instructive of the band’s strengths together and apart—and what’s missing when those elements are separated, isolated, or recombined with other musicians. This is especially notable for a band whose members can’t always stop themselves from writing and singing about each other.

1. “Plane Crash In C” by Rilo Kiley (2001)

The first full-length Rilo Kiley album, Take Offs And Landings, announces the band’s style—mixing indie pop, folk, and a dash of new wave—straight away. It also has certain hallmarks that the band would gradually shed as time went on, most notably in its trio of songs that swell past the five-minute mark. Even some of the shorter songs on Take Offs have extended intros, outros, or bridges, and while the band’s eventual tightening wasn’t unwelcome, there’s a confidently unhurried quality to their midtempo slow-builders. “Plane Crash In C,” for example, lopes into swelling horn riffs (Lewis is just barely audible issuing a spoken “Okay!” that signals the final horn kick-in). The feeling of an intimate, modest indie-rock band taking a graceful turn for the epic would recur throughout Rilo Kiley’s career—and may be the element that its members have been least able to recapture in their other projects.

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2. “The Charging Sky” by Jenny Lewis With The Watson Twins (2006)

The first and probably best-loved (though not actually best) Jenny Lewis solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, is notable because it’s not technically a solo album; Lewis shared artist credit with the Watson Twins, who back her up with lovely vocals throughout. This is one of the twangier, more countrified numbers on Rabbit Fur Coat, as well as one of its brighter, more uptempo moments. It’s not as intensely personal as the title track, but Lewis knows her way around a wonderfully specific detail: “So my mom, she brushes her hair / And my dad starts growing Bob Dylan’s beard.”

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3. “The Execution Of All Things” by Rilo Kiley (2002)

Many Rilo Kiley diehards connected to the emotional, seemingly personal nature of the band’s music very early on, to the point of favoring the less sophisticated songs of their first EP over their more polished later albums. But it wasn’t long before the band started looking beyond semi-oblique confessionals, or at least offering a broader glimpse of the world within those confessionals. The title track from their second album has a clear first-person perspective, but the third verse takes a wider view as it describes the systematic destruction of the entire world. It’s probably a metaphorical stand-in for some personal feelings, but the canvas is bigger and bolder, as is the music; Sennett’s guitar solo has sharper edges than the more languid instrumental breaks on Take Offs. A world-weary semi-cynicism also creeps in: “We’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene,” Lewis sings in a reference to the hometown of Saddle Creek, the label that released Execution.

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4. “Head Underwater” by Jenny Lewis (2014)

The leadoff track from The Voyager finds the usually prolific singer reemerging after a few years off from releasing records, and reevaluating her life as a thirtysomething woman. Though the arrangement doesn’t sound much like Rilo Kiley, the lyrics and Lewis’ delivery of them very much feel like the band after a sudden time jump—a what-if scenario that The Voyager goes on to dismantle as it reveals itself as Lewis’ best-ever solo work.

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5. “The Bank And Trust” by The Elected (2006)

As foolhardy as it would be to argue that Blake Sennett’s three albums with The Elected are anywhere near as great as Rilo Kiley in general or Jenny Lewis at her best, they do isolate some elements of Rilo Kiley that make the band work so well. The Elected’s sound lands somewhere between alt-country and a throwback to the early days of rock ’n’ roll, best exemplified in Sun, Sun, Sun, which actually came out on the same day as Rabbit Fur Coat back in 2006. It would be easy to interpret this release strategy as a passive-aggressive version of Speakerboxx/The Love Below, but Sun also makes sense as an add-on to a Rabbit Fur Coat purchase. Fans of Lewis’ folkier first non-Rilo record will find plenty to like about Sennett’s second. And particularly attentive fans will find it difficult to read “The Bank And Trust” as anything but a song about the relationship between Sennett and Lewis, and a pretty scathing one, at that, with a female character who cruelly tells the narrator “the only way you got as far as you did is because of me; your songs suck.” But while indulging his penchant for old-timey interjections (“Walk on!” he cries at one point), Sennett also shifts focus to another character, a woman from Montgomery without a lot of options: “Some days I can hardly move, much less move away.” There may be a bit of score-settling to this song, but its energy and showmanship are undeniable.

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6. “Jack Killed Mom” by Jenny Lewis (2008)

This song was a slow-fused, then barn-burning revelation when it debuted on J-Lew’s original Rabbit Fur Coat tour, often following a set of introspective acoustic numbers. Outside of that context, it’s still pretty great, and the best of Lewis’ genre experiments on Acid Tongue. The personnel assembled for the studio version of this strutting murder story includes Zooey Deschanel (singing backing vocals originally performed by the Watson Twins in concert) and Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel, who plays on much of Acid Tongue. The greater wonder is that the glorious clamor (including a fast-paced coda) doesn’t feature Johnathan Rice (though he does receive a co-writing credit), M. Ward, or Conor Oberst.

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7. “Ripchord” by Rilo Kiley (2004)

From a maximalist Jenny Lewis track to perhaps the most minimalist Rilo song on record: a two-minute song with Sennett accompanying himself solo on ukulele, singing about his departed friend Elliott Smith. There are slightly fewer Sennett-sung songs on the later Rilo Kiley albums (which is to say one instead of two), but he made his contributions count; “Ripchord” is one of his best and most concise tunes. It’s especially poignant given how much Sennett’s whispery voice owes to Smith’s singing style.

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8. “15” by Rilo Kiley (2007)

Under The Blacklight was Rilo Kiley’s fourth and final proper album, and their last major release until the B-side/rarity compilation Rkives finally made its way into the world six years later. The band’s first and only release recorded for a major label (Warner Bros. helped distribute More Adventurous and put out the follow-up) irritated some longtime fans with its stories of fumbling Los Angeles debauchery. First single “The Moneymaker,” with its porn-star music video, got more attention in that regard, but a lot of strong cuts from later in this underrated record (including the title track and the snappy “Smoke Detector”) seem overlooked in retrospect. One of the best is this brazenly icky number, a horn-augmented third-person narrative about jailbait sung with gusto by Lewis. As vaunted as Lewis has been for her overtly personal lyrics, she’s a talented storyteller whether she sounds confessional or not. Also: This is the only Rilo Kiley song with a theremin solo.

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9. “Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis (2008)

One common ground in Rilo Kiley and its various offshoots, solo projects, and associated musicians is the sense that most of these various band members would be happy playing around a campfire. “Acid Tongue,” the title track from Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat follow-up, may be the best and purest expression of that gentle yearning (“With Arms Outstretched,” from The Execution Of All Things, is its closest competition). Accompanied primarily by acoustic guitar and a chorus of backing vocals, Lewis turns a series of rueful anecdotes into a gently cathartic sing-along.

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10. “Silver Lining” by Rilo Kiley (2007)

In retrospect, Rilo Kiley telegraphed their impending breakup on Under The Blacklight before they even got to the song called “Breakin’ Up.” The first track is gentler and less direct, befitting of the fact that the band didn’t officially discuss a breakup until several years after touring for Blacklight ended. It’s not exactly a kiss-off, but a sweetly sad acknowledgement of the freedom that comes from ending a faltering relationship. “I was your silver lining,” Lewis sings, “but now I’m gold.” (Then again, maybe the breakup hints weren’t that subtle; the music video depicts Lewis leaving Sennett at the altar.)

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11. “Love U Forever” by Jenny Lewis (2014)

Musically, “Love U Forever” doesn’t sound much like “Silver Lining,” but thematically it’s a neat companion piece. Years later, Lewis sings about commitment with convincing exuberance while still letting some ambivalence creep in. Riff-happy guitar work backs her story of meeting a guy who seems right and the subsequent gushing with her girlfriends about how she’s getting married in May. But the chorus adds some nuance when Lewis sings, “I could love you forever.” Not “will,” but “could.” That wording combined with the song’s emphasis on a get-together without the narrator’s intended removes “Love U” from love-song mooniness. This is a love song for cautious optimists.

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12. “Born To Love You” by The Elected (2011)

For better or worse—mostly better—projects by Rilo Kiley alumni rarely sound like watered-down Rilo. A warm, sweet little number like “Born To Love You” probably wouldn’t fly on a Rilo Kiley album and doesn’t even really jump out even on an Elected album. But when rolling up their band’s various dabblings, the change-up in pace and style it provides seems almost essential.

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13. “Big Wave” by Jenny And Johnny (2010)

It might seem presumptuous or tone-deaf for a presumably financially solvent professional musician to write a song about financial crisis. But economic woes have long been a part of the Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis oeuvres, from the melancholy Rilo classic “Xmas Cake” (one of the few Christmas songs to include lyrics about living out of your car) to the more cautionary “Big Wave,” a highlight of the uneven album Lewis made with Johnathan Rice. Any unfair complaints made against Sennett by Lewis-besotted fans can be applied more accurately to Rice, but their one record as a duo has some highlights with punchier, more power-pop arrangements than Lewis’ other albums.

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14. “A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley (2002)

Please rise for the Rilo Kiley national anthem: a chorus-less defiance of depression. In a slow, marching buildup, Lewis quickly sketches the swings from lows to highs and back again as Sennett’s guitar chimes in with anthemic insistence. Put together, it’s the sound of the intensely personal turning into the universal without losing any of that scrappy intensity.

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15. “It’s A Hit” by Rilo Kiley (2004)

The first song off of More Adventurous isn’t the “ultimate” Rilo Kiley cut, exactly, but it does find the band reaching a new, confident peak while absorbing much of what came before: the horn backing that sometimes turned up on Take Offs; memorable mini-riffing from Sennett (an underrated guitarist with a clearly recognizable style); an awareness of the world outside their own personal heartbreaks; and the crisp cursing that briefly made Lewis one of the best rock swearers since Liz Phair. Rilo Kiley would go on to equal “It’s A Hit” plenty of times: on this record, on the next one, and sometimes on the non-Rilo records that followed. But the bittersweet magic of this particular song still lingers. It buzzes with the band’s under-recognized specialness and echoes as the band’s talented personnel continue to find other outlets.

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