The Always Evolving, All Too Brief Life Of Rilo Kiley

At the end of July of 2001, 15 years ago this week, Rilo Kiley released their debut album, Take Offs and Landings. When the band debuted, the most notable thing about them was the acting pasts of two members of the band, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett. Lewis had been in movies such as Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard. Sennett played Pinsky, the cool guy who replaced Michael on Salute Your Shorts and squirmy bully Joey “The Rat” Epstein on Boy Meets World. They were just beginning as musicians, at least professionally. By the time the band broke up a decade later, they had put together a tremendous, if too brief, output.

To be fair, the beloved, critically adored Rilo Kiley releases didn’t really start at the beginning. Take Offs and Landings, plus the band’s self-titled EP released in 1999 that would be tweaked and tweaked until it came out as The Initial Friend in 2001, don’t immediately jump off the page. Take Offs and Landings featured a few songs sung by Sennett, which would not be a common occurrence going forward — possibly a reason why he’d later establish his band The Elected. With all due respect to the band’s other members, and they were all vital to the group, there is a reason Lewis has become a major musical figure with a few excellent solo albums to her name. Her voice is incredible, capable of engaging the listener whether she is singing softly or belting out big, forceful vocals. Showcasing her, and a little tweak to their sound, would really help take Rilo Kiley to the next level, the level we fondly remember them on.

Rilo Kiley’s next two albums, 2002’s The Execution of All Things and 2004’s More Adventurous, are both masterpieces. It’s just a matter of trying to delineate which masterpiece is the best album the band ever recorded. We will start, with a hat tip to chronology, with The Execution of All Things. The band moved to Saddle Creek, Conor Oberst’s record label, for this album, and the band’s sound grew into something much deeper and richer. The vocals were richer and more varied, and the instrumentation grew more daring, even including some sampling. This was when we realized what this band was capable of.

The album is loaded with good songs, it’s not quite all killer, no filler, but it’s close, with several stand out tracks. When “A Better Son/Daughter” kicks into a higher gear, with Lewis stretching her voice to its limits, if you aren’t viscerally grabbed by the song something inside, you may very well be dead. The song is optimistic and pessimistic in equal measures, but it’s just so high energy it leaves you vibrating regardless. And “With Arms Outstretched” is such a great song that, when used in the television show Weeds, it could convince you momentarily that Weeds isn’t a terrible show. It’s one of the best driving songs of all time. It’s beautiful. Again, those are but two of the highlights, albeit the two brightest highlights, in what is a truly great album.

More Adventurous is the record that escalated the group to their first big commercial success. They got on the Billboard Hot 200 and reached No. 7 on their Heatseekers chart. The big hit of the album, the very deserving “Portions for Foxes,” was included in Rock Band. Once again, they changed their sound, but in a way that worked for them. It does feel more “mature,” in a sense, but not in an indulgent way. Rilo Kiley didn’t really need to find themselves, but it sort of feels like they did anyway.

Then came Under the Blacklight in 2007. Now a crossover indie rock act, their fourth and final album hit No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 200. The album got a lot of Fleetwood Mac comparisons, which, from a music perspective, is a good thing, but bands usually get Fleetwood Mac comparisons when it becomes clear that the writing is on the wall. While Rilo Kiley has never really been a positive, uplifting band, Under the Blacklight is particularly dark. Not entirely, “Silver Lining” if nothing else sounds very pretty, but the album overall is not exactly a toe tapper.

Between More Adventurous and Under the Blacklight, both Lewis and Sennett had made solo albums, with Lewis’ getting notable acclaim, so perhaps it is not surprising that Under the Blacklight is their last hurrah. For a few years, there was not much talk about the band’s future, but then the chatter began, and it was mostly of the “never say never” variety until Lewis finally said that the band was broken up in 2014. Given everything Lewis has done since 2007, it seems very unlikely the band will ever get back together. If they do, it would likely be on a lark, or for a reunion tour — Coachella is always calling. But new material from Rilo Kiley will likely never be heard again.

While that is unfortunate, at least we were left with a few great albums to listen to. While Lewis is still making excellent music with her solo records and in Nice as F*ck (and Sennett is as well with the Night Terrors of 1927), it’s decidedly different, and it isn’t Rilo Kiley. Much as with Jack White, even if you like what he is doing now, it isn’t quite The White Stripes. Rilo Kiley wasn’t some sort of unique or “important” band; they just made great music. They never stayed stuck in a sound and were always willing to experiment and follow their proverbial muses. Despite this evolution, they never misfired, never bit off more than they could chew. Fifteen years ago, a small band featuring a couple former child actors released their first album. Over the next six years, they would turn themselves into one of the best bands out there, before calling it quits. You can still go back and listen to The Execution of All Things, though. You can still put on “With Arms Outstretched” and drive and feel like your heart is going to explode.