For the last couple decades, the indie world has been seriously lacking in the vocal department. There are those singers we love in spite of their lack of singing ability, like Stephen Malkmus. And there are those, like Lou Barlow, who can sing, but do so quietly, straying from vocal dynamics and sticking to a familiar range. But there were never any singers who could really belt out heart breaking leads and harmonies without their voices cracking, save for maybe Neko Case.
Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis is doing her damnedest to change that.
It’s a peculiar thought, a musician associated with Saddle Creek actually possessing the ability to sing in key (sorry, Conor). But Jenny Lewis has a set of pipes, and she’s not afraid to use them. And on top of that, she’s a bold performer. She’s got a penchant for dropping four letter words now and then and just plain rocking out. And if that wasn’t enough, she sang “I Didn’t Understand” a capella at a tribute to the late Elliott Smith last November that moved just about every person in attendance to tears.
Jenny Lewis kicks ass, quite frankly, and if you haven’t heard her wail yet, Rilo Kiley’s newest, More Adventurous isn’t a bad place to start. Opening track “It’s a Hit” is a musical outlet for the red-headed Los Angelena to speak her mind on war, politics, gender roles and the double-egedness of success. This is one of her more subdued performances, though the song is absolutely gorgeous, taking alt-country to a whole new level with layers upon layers of lap steel, vibraphone, glockenspiel, trumpet, saxophone, violin and the standard trio of guitar, bass and drums. “Portions for Foxes” is a power-pop anthem worthy of endless radio play, should station programmers decide that they need a change from Unwritten Law and New Found Glory. Lewis declares, “I’m bad news” but she sounds so charming saying it, you don’t really want to believe her.
For Lewis’ true standout performance, skip to “I Never,” a soulful Motown-style ballad that sounds idiosyncratic in the context of an indie rock album. Her delivery is so amazing, though, that it just sounds right. If only more bands had the balls to test their abilities on tape, commercial radio might actually be listenable. “Accidntel Deth” is quirky, built on a popping and flexing beat, courtesy of Jimmy Tamborello (get it? Acci-dntel?). Despite its electronic leanings, however, the song sounds remarkably organic, retaining the alt-country sound the band is typically known for.
If you happened to pick up a copy of Under the Radar in the Spring, you may have seen Rilo Kiley on the cover, as the mag’s pick for the new release to watch this year. In retrospect, it seems that the editors there knew what they were talking about. More Adventurous is a feast for the ears and an even more incredible listen than 2002’s The Execution of All Things, which was pretty fucking awesome as it was. More Adventurous will be a hard album to top, because with their combination of lush instrumentation, gorgeous songs and Jenny Lewis’s vocals, Rilo Kiley can’t lose.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.