Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett met in L.A. in the 1990s and started recording music together in 1998. They shared a history of being child actors—Lewis face-palmed and then kissed Fred Savage in The Wizard, while Sennett played that little punk Joey The Rat on Boy Meets World—and sometimes I think I see traces of this experience in their music: There was a lot of darkness in the songs, a lot of timid sadness, but like any good kid movie or TV show, there was always at least a fleck of childlike optimism shining through the curtains.
I found Rilo Kiley through the band’s sophomore album, The Execution Of All Things. By the time I got to them in 2002, Lewis and Sennett had already broken up, added bassist Pierre De Reeder and traded drummer Dave Rock for Jason Boesel. They’d also jumped from Barsuk, which had put out the band’s Take Offs And Landings, to Saddle Creek, the Omaha, NE, label that had also just released Bright Eyes’ Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground a couple of months prior. While both of these albums are rooted in indie rock, they take diverging paths—Conor Oberst favoring strings, electronica for Rilo Kiley. But the moroseness of the lyrics and the switching from delicate singing to frustrated outbursts are what really tie the two together in a shared bond of raging fragility. Listening to these albums back to back is a lot like meeting two siblings who don’t look that much alike though you can still tell that they’re related.
That’s the Rilo Kiley that always did it for me—the emo and angst-y one (Of course it was. I was 18 when I first started listening to them and hungry for melodrama.). Execution owns most of those songs, my favorites, but they pop up on Take Offs, More Adventurous and 2007′s Under The Blacklight, the band’s last LP and debut on Warner Bros. RKives, the band’s collection of demos, b-sides, hard-to-find and never-before-released songs, contains some darkness but mostly light. The album opens with an acoustic-guitar-based, Lewis-led ode to the band’s L.A. hometown, now titled “Let Me Back In” though also introduced in live shows as “I Love L.A.” Lewis makes L.A. sound like a nice-guy boyfriend she keeps leaving and then crawling back to when things get rough. “No matter how cruel I’ve been/L.A., you always let me back in,” Lewis sings in that swooning, girlish voice of hers. I’m accustomed to tribute songs like this crapping on other cities before boasting the greatness of one, but Rilo Kiley’s is no “I Love L.A.” And without this punchiness, it’s too saccarine and would have fit better at the end of the tracklist as a sing-along encore.
“It’ll Get You There,” the album’s second song, is better starting material. The hazy electric guitar opening sounds like the sun rising, and Lewis’s voice grows taunting and coy as she rattles off all of the things that will “get you there,” including trips, compliments, “little white pills” and heartbreaks. The guitars rip, and Lewis soars through the chorus, reminding that she can do the quiet thing, but she can also caw. She’s equally capable of riding the middle range, as she does on the bright and driving “All The Drugs,” singing, “Stupid I was and stupid I’ll be.”
Lewis and her voice have always been the focal points of the band, but she alone would not have been enough to make Rilo Kiley succeed. For that, you need some instrumental sounds that parallel Lewis’s talent, and RKives provides examples of those successes. There’s a lush slide guitar on “Bury Bury Bury Another,” just-enough hi-hat hits on “The Frug” and a saloon piano on “About The Moon” that sounds like an outtake from Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis’s solo album with the Watson Twins. The album also provides examples of those failures. There’s a clubby remix of “Dejalo” on RKives that features rapper Too $hort. If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. Rapping and Rilo Kiley sounds like a terrible idea,” well, you’re right. I didn’t like this song in its original form on Under The Blacklight, and trading in the guitars for synth bleeps that sound like they were leftovers from No Doubt’s “Hella Good” shockingly does not improve things.
But what is consistent throughout is Lewis and Sennett’s way with words. When Lewis sneers, “Happy birthday/You’re halfway to 60″ on “A Town Called Luckey,” a song with a recurring line about a “middle-age crisis kind of thing,” it’ll feel like a gut punch to anyone who’s not exactly gleefully cartwheeling toward their 30th. The age thing also comes up on “Draggin’ Around,” where Lewis sings, “Here’s to the younger ones/When they replace me/Here’s to the bitterness that keeps the sweet so sweet,” without a trace of bitterness in her toast. Rilo Kiley always had the ability to acknowledge the bad without letting it suck you down. That got lost on the weirdly glossy, distant and jaded Blacklight, but RKives restores the balance. It’s a reminder that above all the grim images in the music and the mysterious drama that put the group on hiatus, this was—and maybe will be again one day—a hopeful band.