The members of Rilo Kiley have led charmed lives for the last few years. Following the release of two well-received albums, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard contacted singer Jenny Lewis to contribute to his new side project, the Postal Service. The record would outsell everything previously done by both Rilo Kiley and Death Cab for Cutie, becoming the most successful album for Sub Pop since Nirvana’s Bleach. Meanwhile, guitarist Blake Sennett formed side project the Elected and found its debut album picked up by, you guessed it, Sub Pop. As if that wasn’t enough, after forming their own label, Brute / Beaute, and releasing an album that ended up on numerous end of the year lists in More Adventurous, the group went on a massive national tour with Coldplay, arguably one of the most popular bands on the planet. Rilo Kiley’s main songwriters, Sennett and Lewis, were vaulted into the indie spotlight, thanks to that tour and the distribution deal they made with Warner Brothers. Their stars continued to shine as Jenny Lewis found devout fans in such luminaries as Elvis Costello and Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst who convinced the singer to record a solo album on his newly formed label, Team Love. While Lewis was busy constructing her solo debut, Sennett and the Elected were hard at work on their second album, Sun, Sun, Sun which was released on the very same day as Jenny Lewis’ entry Rabbit Fur Coat. But where the Elected reach back into ’70s AM California country rock, Lewis goes back even further, recalling the soulful god-fearing Motown meets the South sounds of Dusty Springfield.
Rabbit Fur Coat beings by showcasing Lewis’ strongest asset, her `smooth as Southern whiskey’ voice. “Run Devil Run” is a one minute a capella introduction to what becomes near forty minutes of harmonic heaven. The song, besides kicking off Lewis’ first solo venture, also introduces the Watson Twins, Chandra and Leigh, a Kentucky singing duo that accompany Lewis and even share billing on the album’s cover. Lewis calls in other favors that pay off in a big way, including James Valentine and Mickey Madden, guitar and bass respectively for Los Angeles band Maroon 5, Jonathan Rice (for whom Lewis made an appearance on his album, Trouble is Real), Rilo Kiley members Jason Boesel and Mike Bloom (recently acquired from the Elected), M. Ward, Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst as the Nebraska contingent, and finally, in the role of Roy Orbison, Ben Gibbard. Although she might admit that she gets by with the help of her friends, it’s Jenny Lewis who takes the spotlight for the first time in her life, usually playing the secondary character in her various acting roles, and as a very visible part, but alas, still a member of a band.
Deep but far off drum beats and equally distant handclaps pepper the landscape of standout “Big Guns,” as Lewis explores her troubled relationship with God, “not betting on the afterlife,” and wondering why she’s always “messing with the big guns.” Another extremely strong and memorable track follows in “Rise Up with Fists!!” which finds the Watson Twins providing their divine voices to the chorus of “There but for the grace of God go I.” Things take a musical turn for the maudlin with the ironically titled “Happy,” a song that recalls some of Rilo’s best songs about the conflicting feelings of love a la “Portions for Foxes.” Musically and vocally, “Happy” is like an updated version of Patsy Cline’s “Walking after Midnight” with Lewis’ tempered and sadly sweet voice digging into our hearts just as Patsy’s did. “Melt Your Heart” takes an emotive pop cue from Ben Gibbard, and speaking of whom, one of the most talked about songs on the CD is the cover of “Handle with Care,” originally performed by the Traveling Wilburys. Lewis plays the part of George Harrison ably, giving way to Gibbard who sings Orbison’s part, with Conor Oberst as Bob Dylan in an intentionally ironic move considering how often journalists refer to him as the ‘new Dylan.’ One similarity between Lewis and Sennett, maybe owed to their combined logged time in various projects, is that they know how to end an album. Rabbit Fur Coat‘s penultimate song is “It Wasn’t Me,” a spare effort with Lewis’ whispery vocals lead to the conclusion, “I’ll use a pop song to clear my name, under the bridges of fame it’s always nighttime, I’ll end with a closer and say goodnight.” All this before Lewis reprises the ever increasingly mistitled “Happy,” as a remark upon the journey she’s taken from childhood stardom to pop star, but with pain and sadness on the way.
And so, Rabbit Fur Coat is testament to the idea that fame and stardom do not always bring perfect happiness, that money isn’t the solution to all of our problems, and that, despite what we all may think, a broken home, failed relationships and the ruination of drugs are universal and fame does not exempt one from its heartbreak. One can take More Adventurous as a graduation of sorts with both Blake Sennett’s Elected album and Jenny Lewis’ solo debut as college students declaring their majors and working on thesis projects. The duo insist that Rilo Kiley is still together and will begin putting an album together after their respective tours which is good news for all, allowing us to indulge in their `high school reunions,’ although a better analogy might find them all still going to the same college or dropping out of school altogether and living in a downtown loft. Either way, charmed lives or no, the alumni of Rilo Kiley are turning straw into gold.