When Rilo Kiley broke out of the morass of emotional indie rock of the early 2000s, with 2002’s exquisite and assured The Execution of All Things, many people were likely unaware of what had come before it. Just a year prior, they had issued their first official album, Take Offs and Landings, on Barsuk Records. Their sound was a blend of energetic and wiry emo tunes, elongated jamming indie rock numbers, and dramatic ballads. Some synth pop was woven in there; a dash of punk here, a pinch of alt-country there. It was a weird amalgam that made it sound very of the time and also sort of outside the time – as a result, gaining only a little bit of the attention the band would later go on to accumulate in spades.
But Execution landed with a bang, bringing the Jenny Lewis- and Blake Sennett-fronted band to a new level of visibility. The long-winded but thin ideas of their debut were almost entirely excised, in favor of crispy and clean emo-leaning indie rock. The alt-country vibes still swayed in here and there, especially on folkier cuts like “Hail to Whatever You Found in the Sunlight That Surrounds You” and “With Arms Outstretched”, but much of this album was the kind of solid indie rock the band would go on to solidify on 2004’s More Adventurous, which contains probably their most identifiable song: “Portions for Foxes”.
If 2002 was a year of Rilo Kiley gaining speed, 2004 saw their ship going into ludicrous speed. “Portions for Foxes” showed up on music video blocks on MTV and VH1, and instantly brought the band a new sense of notoriety. It became the kind of calling card that many bands go their whole careers without; a song that, when that instantly-distinguishable opening guitar lick trickles in, the audience knows what’s coming, and goes apeshit. The album was perhaps a little less critically-beloved than their sophomore effort, but still warmly received.
It all took a turn, then, when they issued what still stands as their final album, 2007’s Under the Blacklight. The album tanked critically, and found the band operating within a slightly-confused sounding realm of slick, countrified, radio-friendly pop rock. It had a couple of great songs on it, but most of the quirks were ironed out, and much of the interplay between the band felt more lackluster than ever before. Perhaps, then, it was no shock when the band called it quits thereafter, and have since only released a collection of (quite good) b-sides and rarities in 2013 called, appropriately, rkives.
That is, until now. In this, the year of our lord 2020, music fans the world around are getting a treat: the reissue of the band’s official debut album (often thought of as an EP). It’s self-titled, although it has been known in the past as Initial Friend, and is shorter than any subsequent Rilo Kiley release, at nine tracks and only 33 minutes. But what it lacks in duration, it makes up for in many ways.
First and foremost, it’s simply a thrill, especially for established fans of the band, to be able to hear this very first incarnation. This is a capsule of a band figuring out what it wants to be, and coming up with a few very memorable indie rock and pop songs along the way.
Now, it should be said, Rilo Kiley has existed for many years, in one form or another, on the internet. I can remember seeing leaks of it as far back as 2007. It has even existed in various sequences, some placing the moonlit ballad “85” as the second track, others excising the peppy “Glendora” altogether. One ends with a nearly 20-minute loop of grating sounds and answering machine messages. Thankfully, this new reissue via Little Record Company undoes all of those decisions. The only decision I wish they didn’t make was removing one of the original closers, a charming and melancholy electronic mid-tempo ballad called “Troubadours” – YouTube it if you get a chance.
The tracklist here is tight, succinct, and shows the band trying on numerous outfits that they’d later go on to either gain a stronger hold of or sort of abandon. “Papillion” gives us a kind of silly emo-rock number, containing a half-jokingly frenzied duet between Lewis and Sennett. “Glendora” gives us a rambling story song, built around one of the band’s signature moves: deceptively cheery melodies that cloak dark or downright sad lyrics. This one specifically follows Jenny (or some other narrator) through a particularly toxic relationship, signified especially in the second verse:
I’m on my way, I want to see you
You’re in your bedroom with some dancers underneath you
I come inside, I hear the door slam
You tell me if I really loved you, I’d get with them
They make me sick, you make me sicker
But I want to please you, so I go and I get with her
I close my eyes, I think about me
It’s truly disturbing, and the song doubles down with a chorus of “I cry cry cry / Then I complain / Come back for more / Do it again.” Lewis has long been renowned for her lyrical abilities; her technique of weaving bittersweet tales, never losing their honesty, and it’s a delight to see her have such a firm grip on her style right out of the gate. She also, as ever, refuses to lose her sense of humor, stating blithely in the bridge: “Every time I come over to your house / You just shit on my face / And you know it really freaks me out.”
Other songs on the album run the gamut. That’s the thing here: Rilo Kiley trades in so many stylistic avenues across its scant runtime, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on the proceedings. Certain songs may pass by relatively unnoticed before the next one starts, like “Sword”, which is less than two minutes long, but includes some truly moving vocal melodies.
Of course, with a strategy such as this, and the band being so young, some songs are less successful than others. The closing “Gravity” is a bit of raucous fun before the album ends, but not much more than that, and “Always” is charming — a fully-synthetic version of a song they’d later redo as an indie rock barn-burner — but a bit undercooked, and neither really fit into this tracklist. The sole Sennett-led track, “Asshole”, has a cool 90s rock instrumental, almost reminiscent of something Red House Painters might’ve stirred up, but Sennett’s vocals just can’t match Lewis’s in presence or power, and the trip-hop-indebted record skips feel out of place.
However, some of the songs here truly rank among the band’s best, despite occurring so early in their lifespan. The aforementioned “85” is a totally weepy ballad, complete with lovely brushed drums, spidery guitars, and a mournful, resigned vocal from Lewis. Lyrics like “I locked the keys in your car / I’ll be in your car / For now,” somehow come off as being much more potent when sung by Lewis than they look on paper, and others — like “I’ve been a mess for some time / Now I get what I deserve,” or the chorus’s “I wonder why it doesn’t keep him up at night / Like it does me” — feel appropriately blue. And then on “Teenage Love Song” we get a full-on country tear-in-your-beer slow dance tune, like something from a particularly morose prom. It’s profoundly heartsick, but also shows a brash sense of humor, and acts as an early precursor to the kind of alt-country the band would dabble in more in the future, and that would especially pop up so heavily in Lewis’s solo work. (It also feels like a direct cousin to 2004’s “I Never”.)
Rilo Kiley shows a new band wriggling around in the mire of figuring out what they wanna be. Those growing pains are on display from end to end, from the slightly uncomfortable genre-hopping, to the sometimes-mawkish lyrics, or the trying-too-hard-to-be-clever wordplay. The instrumentals are solid, and the band clearly had real chemistry from the beginning. And furthermore, they seem like a band who’s having fun. One of the problems with Under the Blacklight was that it felt like an album that was, superficially, supposed to be fun, being made by a band who might have forgotten exactly how to do that.
But here, as evidenced by the first song, “Frug” — which would later take on a second life as a hidden fan favorite — Rilo Kiley truly did know how to have their cake and eat it too. They crafted witty, emotional indie rock songs, blending their myriad influences into mostly successful combinations, and exhibiting the gusto to do it. On “Frug”, we see Lewis making admissions as mundane as “I can make some mac and cheese,” next to ones as subtly revealing as “I can take my clothes off / You’ll never see my eyes.” Lewis was, and still is, an assured songwriter, and she had found the friends to help her render these songs into something bigger and bolder.
So while it is far from a perfect album, especially compared to their later successes, Rilo Kiley gives us just a little glimpse at the beginnings of one of the decade’s true indie stalwarts. There’s a reason why fans still explode in teary cheers when a Jenny Lewis solo performance includes the stray Rilo Kiley tune. This band meant so much to so many people in the 2000s, and though it’s so exciting to get to hear this debut now with hindsight, it’s almost more interesting to think of what was to come for this committed, intelligent, open-hearted rock band.