(Little Record Company; 2013)
By Maura McAndrew | 18 April 2013
Rilo Kiley’s RKives acts as a sort of conclusion to the career of a band whose break up never really felt definitive (and luckily, whose members are all still making music). But instead of the obvious “greatest hits” disc, RKives is something more substantial: a collection of B-sides and rarities that subtly tell the band’s story; the musical equivalent of going through old photo albums. A carefully curated yet ragged group of leftovers both offbeat and expected, RKives is for fans who feel like we know Jenny, Blake, Pierre, and Jason (and even Dave). It’s for those of us who, for one, want to hear just a little more from them, but it also affords us the chance to remember who they were, and who we were, before we all became something else. RKives does provide a new discovery here and there, but mostly it succeeds due to this feeling of intimacy, and it’s a bittersweet yet fitting goodbye.
One of the nicest aspects of RKives is its order, though it seems head-scratching at first. The album ostensibly plunges backwards into Rilo Kiley’s career more or less chronologically (though “Dejalo” juts into the middle like a sore thumb), beginning with “new” single “Let Me Back In” and ending with the song that introduced many of us to the band: 1998’s “The Frug,” from the soundtrack to the long-forgotten Kate Hudson vehicle Desert Blue. “The Frug” is one of their simpler compositions, and bears a certain ’90s Juliana Hatfield-type cuteness, but it’s nonetheless beguiling; clearly Lewis was already developing her signature brand of half-smiling ennui. Though two songs are not enough to sum up a band’s evolution, compare “The Frug” with “Let Me Back In” and you come close. While “The Frug” is a catchy song that hints at greater depth, “Let Me Back In” shows a band that has grown in self-assurance and songcraft. It’s instantly affecting and unique, with its echoing beach-y guitar, Lewis’s commanding voice, and a tap-dance-y interlude that should be silly but, layered with strings, sort of makes a person want to cry. On RKives, “Let Me Back In,” a song about leaving and returning home to L.A., says goodbye first thing rather than wait, a decision that charges the entire record with poignancy.
Most of the songs on RKives lack the power of “Let Me Back In,” but everything included is solid enough. (Though I must join the chorus of petulant RK fans whining about the inclusion of a “Dejalo” remix, featuring Jenny Lewis sort-of-rapping alongside Too $hort. It’s…not really them.) Like the band’s career, the best part of RKives is the middle, with the songs on either end sounding alternately half-baked (“About the Moon”) or overwrought (the emo-ish “It’ll Get You There”). I had hoped the band might include at least a few tracks from the perpetually out-of-print Initial Friend EP, an early self-release, but “The Frug” is the one and only. It’s interesting to hear Lewis’s evolution as a singer; on early tracks like the charming “American Wife” she’s downright twee and whispery, and on the pretty “Draggin’ Around,” she’s holding her own as a full-on torch singer. Her voice is the glue that holds many of these songs together, strengthening through the years and, like her lyrics, always engaging.
RKives settles into a nice groove with “All the Drugs” and “Bury, Bury, Bury Another,” the standout here, a country lament in the vein of “More Adventurous.” It’s the sort of magical, warm song we haven’t heard from Lewis in a while. She ambles around in her comfort zone, keeping it simple and sad, singing about working and growing old and losing family. Ever since Rabbit Fur Coat (2006) Lewis has been moving into different genres, sometimes successfully, but at the expense of her naturally lived-in, effervescent sound. It’s a treat to hear her looseness on these tracks with lower stakes, some the band probably never intended to release, and “Bury, Bury, Bury Another” is Lewis at her absolute best.
Blake Sennett, on the other hand, is the Rilo Kiley member who seems to provoke the most derision. He has only two solo vocal contributions here: “Well, You Left” and “Rest of My Life,” two unremarkable yet comfortably Sennett-y studies in whispering Elliott Smith-style folk and lovelorn passive-aggression. This is no slight; it’s simply consistent with Sennett’s contributions over the band’s four albums. What Sennett detractors often forget is that he is co-author of some of the band’s best songs, even here: “Let Me Back In,” “I Remember You,” and the satisfyingly Execution of All Things (2002)-esque “Emotional.” In fact, RKives reminds of the way that Lewis and Sennett could often make each other better; combining styles to confidently walk the line between Sennett’s indie-emo (and later disco) leanings and Lewis’s affinity for the country-tinged torch song.
“I Remember You” clearly has Sennett’s fingerprints on it to the extent that it could be a lost cut from the Elected’s Bury Me in My Rings (2011), though with Lewis singing. With its indie movie romance premise and breathless chorus, “I Remember You” is the best straight-up pop song I’ve heard this year, more interesting and fun than much of the similarly-styled Under the Blacklight (2007). Lewis duets with the rasp-voiced singer-songwriter Benji Hughes in a charming Human League-style duet about two strangers who meet and reconnect: “May old acquaintance be forgot / But I remember you.” It doesn’t sound much like the Rilo Kiley we remember, but rather reveals their surprising hidden talent for bubblegum radio pop.
When RKives begins, with Lewis singing slowly and steadily, “Let it be printed, let it be known / I’m leaving you, I’m going home / And all you can do is just / Watch me go,” it’s like the act of sitting someone down and bracing them for bad news. Rilo Kiley as a band is no more, but they’re kind enough to reassure their fans, like a parent to a child saying, “it’s not your fault; we still love you.” RKives is the band giving us an opportunity to watch them go. It’s not the best work they’ve done, together or separately, but that’s not the intent. The intent is to look back on a band and wonder at the way they worked, at the way each element came together, as on The Execution of All Things, to make great, lasting music. “I’m sorry for leaving,” Lewis sings, but she doesn’t sound sad. “Let Me Back In” is, like RKives as a whole, hopeful and appreciative above all else, a way for the band and the fans to celebrate what they had one last time before returning to the present, to careers already well into the next phase.