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With Arms Outstretched

Redheaded indie wet dream Jenny Lewis brings even more of the good out of Rilo Kiley

It happens to tunesters I dig like the Old 97's and to tunesters I disdain like Ben Folds: artists serenaded with their finest choruses by a fan base unknown to the culture at large. So there in the brutal crammed heat of the Knitting Factory August 4 was redheaded love object Jenny Lewis in short black summer dress and distressed maroon leg warmers, and her besotted cult was shouting: "Now some days they last longer than others/But this day by the lake went too fast/And if you want me you better speak up I won't wait/So you better move fast."

"With Arms Outstretched" asks for the treatment by climaxing with an in-studio sing-along on Rilo Kiley's 2002 The Execution of All Things, where it's a standout less catchy than "The Good That Won't Come Out," not performed at the Knit, or the encore-capping "A Better Son/Daughter." And The Execution of All Things is only a run-up to More Adventurous, Rilo Kiley's fourth longform on their fourth label, Rilo to Barsuk to Saddle Creek to Brute/Beaute, distributed and in part promoted by Warners, but owned by the band in one of the uncountable variations on indie/not-indie to arise since the biz cried wolf. Saddle Creek bowed out even though their guy produced the record, so this indie band, led by showbiz kids whose intimacy with Hollywood started before they could sign contracts, are bidding to "go pop" and maintain control simultaneously.

The Execution of All Things has sold 30,000, enough to fill 100 Knits with young seekers shouting about days by the lake. Should a band tour those theoretical Knits assiduously, it's also enough to keep four young musicians alive--especially if they have residuals coming in like Lewis and her sometime songwriting partner, guitarist Blake Sennett, whose acting careers are what's looking residual now. To borrow the studio term that captures actually existing pop so well, Rilo Kiley don't limit their music--dynamically and also thematically, their records have range. On the indie spectrum, however, they calibrate conventional. Sonically, they're clean and not arch about it--Lewis's voice strong and clear, the tunes and arrangements straightforward, the lyrics comprehensible. In short, the band submerged their substance and grit--but both are there. Most song bands are so static that at Southpaw last year I was surprised to see them rock, emote, trade instruments, squeeze off noises and licks and solos. Similarly, the neat, orderly sound of Lewis's lyrics is undercut by the complex, dirty world their meanings engage--although in a subculture where obscurantism is expected, that they have meanings at all suggests why they sound the way they do. It's a formal commitment. Rilo Kiley want to be understood.

The 2001 debut album Take Offs and Landings is typical high-indie--thin, smart, tuneful, and thin, with protracted intros, four Sennett vocal leads signifying likable ineptitude, and at least two exceptionally acute dying-relationship songs. But "Go Ahead" and "Bulletproof" are no sharper than "Capturing Moods" and "My Slumbering Heart" on The Execution of All Things, which has bigger themes to conquer. Its greatest songs transmute self-help axioms via some alchemy of recapitulation, dramatization, and good cheap hook. "A Better Son/Daughter" should be licensed to the American Psychological Association for free downloading by depressives and their co-dependents.

Lewis is such a wet dream for indie boys--pretty, bright, likes men, says "fuck" a lot--that I underrated The Execution of All Things. Its basic pleasures as purely aesthetic as pop gets, More Adventurous makes that impossible. Think career albums by artists as different on the surface as Luna, Fountains of Wayne, and Lucinda Williams. All feast on songcraft--not the sound of the music or the intensity of the vision, but the adroit intermesh of fetching tune and well-turned lyric. And there won't be a better song album in 2004--I'd bet my vote on it.

Everything else depends on Lewis's singing, always lean and lissome (she was principal backup for the Postal Service), but now also big and textured, breathy and kind and emotive, live-er, acted with a grasp of the permeable boundary between persona and character. The melodies are beefed up with the kind of simple handclaps-to-horns touches puritans know to be mammon's work. And crisply enunciated lines like "We could be daytime drunks if we wanted," "And if I get pregnant/I guess I'll just have the baby," and "Your legs aren't taking any more requests" promise narratives that materialize when you concentrate, as seems meet once you've absorbed the force of three Sennett-tuned winners: the all's-unfair "Does He Love You?," the multiple-p.o.v. "A Man/Me/Then Jim," and especially "Portions for Foxes," with its trenchant pessimism and undeniable, irresistible chorus: "And it's bad news/Baby I'm bad news/I'm just bad news, bad news, bad news."

That's just track three, though, right after one that ends, "Your husband will never leave you/He will never leave you for me." On this album, Lewis has farther to grow. "I can take my clothes off/I cannot fall in love," she sang on "The Frug," which kicked off Rilo's out-of-print 1999 Initial Friend EP, a debut lifted well above Take Offs and Landings by several moderately harrowing teen-sex songs. Ever since, Lewis's femme fatale act has fed into the wet dream--she'll be the top, rendering male fear of commitment moot. But here, heeding the moral lessons of "The Good That Won't Come Out" and "A Better Son/Daughter," she puts that behind her. In the title tune and the soul-styled "I Never," she can fall in love, and wants nothing better. And though the three songs at the end lay out downsides of that life-leap, they admit no regrets. Not just songcraft--through-structured songcraft. To use the cant term, mature. The clincher is the only track, excluding Sennett's token indie-rock cameo, that isn't about love. It's about politics--now that's mature. For relevant details, well, you know what they say in the funny papers--see "Hitting Back".

Village Voice, Sept. 7, 2004