Jenny Lewis and her bandmates in L.A.'s Rilo Kiley are making real progress. "You should hear what it's like in our van when we're on tour," the singer says by phone from her Silver Lake home a week before climbing into that van for a five-week trek to the East Coast and back. "There's a little Megadeth and quite a bit of indie rock from my side of the world. [Guitarist] Blake [Sennett] is a huge Pink Floyd fan. I listen to a lot of old country, then everything sort of in between. We're also big fans of popular music -- like, we'll rock the radio a little bit."
This is great news for Switchfoot and Terror Squad, but it's an even better development for people trying to resuscitate a floundering relationship with the indie rock that fills Lewis's side of the world -- for people who've put up long enough with the scene's passive-aggressive attitude toward really selling a song. Not selling it to Coca-Cola or Motel 6, but giving it what it needs to get over, to make sense, to provoke an emotional response more vivid than a toss of unwashed hair.
"I think there's this thing that happens where -- and I felt us at a certain point kind of getting stuck in it -- it's not a shoe-gazing mentality, but this fear of, 'Well, I don't wanna go too far out there. I don't wanna sing out too much, because then suddenly it becomes unrelatable,'" Lewis says. "This underlying feeling that if it's not whispered in front of a microphone by a female songwriter, it's unacceptable somehow. But I think with this record, we were just like 'Fuck it.'"
"This record" is More Adventurous, Rilo Kiley's perfectly titled third album, on which Lewis, Sennett, bassist Pierre de Reeder, and drummer Jason Boesel challenge that diffidence by treating the album's 11 tunes like individual Technicolor production numbers. (It's helpful in understanding the band's flair for the dramatic to remember that Lewis and Sennett are both reformed child actors; Lewis was in Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard, while Sennett -- as Blake Soper -- was a regular on Boy Meets World and Salute Your Shorts.) Each song feels beamed in from a different planet of sound: The opener, "It's a Hit," and "Does He Love You?" bounce with mellow West Coast grooves, souped-up holdovers from Rilo's gently country-fried 2002 disc, The Execution of All Things; "I Never" is a sturdy 6/8 swing with Lewis ably pouring one out for Patsy Cline; "Ripchord," sung by Sennett, could soundtrack your next alfresco bistro brunch; "The Absence of God" and the title track shimmer with crisp acoustic guitars; "Accidntel Deth" and the irresistible "Portions for Foxes" threaten the New Pornographers' hold on retrofit new-wave brio.
It's a revelation to hear a band as entrenched in the indie world as Rilo Kiley -- Lewis did side-project duty last year with Ben Gibbard's blip-pop outfit the Postal Service, while Sennett and Boesel released a record in February on Sub Pop under the name the Elected -- sound as capably enthused as these talented Angelenos do. There's nothing of their peers' mealy-mouthed bet-hedging, nor of the stylistic monotony that can sap, say, a Guided by Voices record of its beery spirit. Like spinning the dial on your in-dash AM/FM, playing More Adventurous reveals a string of delights engineered to pique your interest with a note or two. The real treat is that once you're inside her zone, Lewis keeps you there with her sophisticated storytelling. She likens Adventurous to a collection of short stories (in contrast with Execution's novelistic sweep), which is about right: Parsing these unapologetically wordy portraits of twentysomething anxiety and romance is the only way to get to gems like "Maybe love won't let you down/All of your failures are training grounds/And just as your back's turned, you'll be surprised/As your solitude subsides."
After demoing songs at home, Rilo recorded most of the new album in Nebraska last fall with Mike Mogis, the gifted producer the group met after it released Execution, when it fell in with the posse of bands centered around Omaha's Saddle Creek Records. (To issue Adventurous, Lewis and Sennett actually started up their own label, Brute/Beaute, through which they plan to eventually release friends' records.) They'd hoped to complete the project by Christmas, but "got stuck" about halfway through mixing. "We were feeling kind of frustrated out there," Lewis explains. "I think we couldn't hear things anymore. It was a very cold winter in Nebraska, and there were some personal things going on, and we started to melt down a little bit." She and Sennett went on an acoustic tour "to sort of clear our heads a little bit," then drove from the last show in Chicago back to Omaha to finish the record, remixing and rerecording the title track with fresh ears.
They also sought the input of other producers: Mark Trombino, best known for his work with Blink-182, Dave Sher of L.A.'s Beachwood Sparks, and the Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello, one of Lewis's best friends. Each brings an aesthetic flavor to the band's songs, which Lewis says they were looking for. "We wanted to do this record with Mogis, and we also wanted to try different things," she says. "We thought it would be an interesting thing for all of us -- Mogis included -- to be able to work with these different sounds."
Still, like the devoted indie rocker she is, Lewis stops short of saying that she and her bandmates conceptualized each song as a distinct genre exercise. "It just came about based on the songs that we had written," she says. "With a song like 'I Never,' I had just written that on the piano, and I didn't know what I was gonna do with it. I didn't know what kind of song it was. So I played it for my best friend, Morgan, and she said, 'You should really put that on the new record.' And I brought it to the band and we just kind of played it, and that's what came of it. I don't think there was too much deliberating. Or deliberation? What would be the appropriate word to use?"
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.