Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous

[19 October 2004]

By Peter Su

Pure Pop for Grown-ups

In the sweepstakes for indie darlings who’ve made good in the real world (this album got buzz from Entertainment Weekly, after all), this beats even last year’s Fountains of Wayne crossover. Both albums come with the witty lyrical twists one expects from indie pop, as well as an aesthetic commitment to three-minute songcraft. More important, though, this album, like Welcome Interstate Managers but unlike too many other indies, presents a larger worldview and awareness of other people while keeping its attractive hooks and riffs out in the open, not hidden beneath a layer of feedback and noise and intentionally sludgy recording techniques.

That this album is indie at all indicates more the limitations of the mainstream marketplace that indie artists always complain about (they do exist!) more than it does any indie tendency to make mountains of the solipsistic little details from the emotional baggage of a precocious post-adolescent’s bag of tricks. Or, as Lewis herself sings about the indie boys club: “any asshole can open up a museum” so everyone can see the things he loves, can see the “ordinary moments in his ordinary life”. She, of course, isn’t buying it. “But I’ll try selling it anyway.” And the lead track in which she sings that line is entitled “It’s a Hit”. Even if isn’t, her calling out Bush for being the shit-throwing ape he is—same song, first verse—will have more to do with that than the song lacking hooks or Lewis being disdainful of entertaining mindless masses who haven’t even heard of My Bloody Valentine. If you’re not going to have a hit, at least it’s good to not have one for all the right reasons. So bully for her.

This is pure pop for grown-ups, complete with “I Never”, a song Jenny Lewis calls a respectful pastiche of Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield. And for your listening convenience, the album kicks off with what may be its three best—and certainly most accessible—songs. They then shore up indie cred with the fourth track, a lo-fi acoustic song about being lonely and alone complete with Blake Sennett’s proudly unprofessional vocals. Then they go back to delivering on the sweet pop promise of the early tracks once again, albeit with a few more dollops of their on-again, off-again abstract bent.

The good news is that the rest of the songs aren’t willfully obscure either sonically or lyrically. Rather, they’re just—layered. While Lewis’s vocals are clear throughout, the latter songs take a little more doing to unravel lyrically. But rest assured that they still have narratives, they still make worthwhile points, and—even without those extraneous things—they still sound good. Which means you’ll actually want to listen to these songs until all the layers of meaning emerge.

When those things do emerge, what comes across is an acceptance of life and, of course, death. The complete line from which the album title is drawn—“I read that with every broken heart we should become more adventurous”—neatly encapsulates the perspective of the work. For that matter, so does “The absence of God will bring you comfort, baby”. Too attuned to and celebratory of the sweetness of life to be good stoics, Rilo Kiley nonetheless realize its transience. And it’s the acceptance of that transience that gives these narratives of heartbreak, loss, and the “gradual descent / Into a life you never meant” their warm glow, a warm glow like the one in A Christmas Carol, a book that, until the last chapter, is a bleak examination from the twilight of a selfish and lonely life. But it’s the final acceptance of the human fate, the glad realization that one’s struggles and victories and defeats are paralleled by the rest of humanity, that conquers the individual’s loneliness and regret.

That’s why the bad news from bad news to bad news on “Portions for Foxes” ends with a genuinely affectionate, offhand remark: “I don’t care, I like you.” Why, despite not having fingers enough to count all her doubts on the title track, “If I get pregrant I guess I’ll just have the baby.” And it’s why both this album and Dickens’s work are loving celebrations of the human comedy (and why it’s important to always read a book’s last chapter). We are, just like Scrooge’s nephew told him all along, fellow passengers to the grave. And a long ride is always better if you strike up some pleasantries with the people you’re sitting with.

P.S. With Jenny Lewis’s visual and vocal sex appeal (that catch in her voice can be pretty affecting), the indie hype around it, and—not least—the accessibility and actual quality of the music itself, expect More Adventurous to deservedly be shortlisted numerous times for year’s best album.

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