Rilo Kiley‘s split, back when guitarist Blake Sennett finally confirmed it in July 2011, surely didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. His working relationship with Jenny Lewis, perhaps inevitably, had collapsed under the weight of the failure of its romantic counterpart; he cited “deception, disloyalty and greed” as key factors for the band’s demise. If, indeed, he really did feel as bitter as his comments suggested, you could probably understand why; his and Lewis’ post-Kiley careers have certainly followed markedly different trajectories to this point.
I was on a train to Leeds, to see Bright Eyes play, when the news invaded my Twitter feed; as fate would have it, Lewis was supporting them, playing songs from her (excellent) collaboration with her current boyfriend, Johnathan Rice. For me, at least, the spectre of Rilo Kiley hung over their set that night, partly because I’d realised that this was now about as close as I’d ever get to seeing them (Kiley drummer Jason Boesel was part of the Jenny & Johnny backing band) and partly because the blunt nature of Sennett’s statement had left a sour taste in the mouth.
I didn’t think it was possible for a band to go out the way Rilo Kiley had, with what is probably best termed an acrimonious whimper – it was hardly LCD at Madison Square Garden. There was mention of a rarities collection to round things off formally, but given the collaboration that would necessitate between a clearly-opposed Sennett and Lewis, it didn’t seem a realistic prospect.
How wrong I was; RKives’ realisation suggests a thawing of hostilities in more recent months, allowing us to focus once again on the Lewis-Sennett partnership, rather than the Lewis-Sennett relationship. The first six tracks, all original and unreleased previously, provide the major point of discussion. I wasn’t really sure what to expect – how fleshed-out would they be? My heart was hoping for finished material that had been gathering dust, but my head was telling me to expect little more than glorified demos.
It’s pleasing, then, to report that it’s pretty much the former; the tracks are musically diverse, with the band in various guises, but what they all share, and possess in abundance, is polish. After many listens, I genuinely believe ‘It’ll Get You There’ can sit comfortably alongside the very best cuts from the Rilo Kiley catalogue; it apparently came from the sessions for the band’s poppiest, most commercially-viable effort, Under the Blacklight, but certainly wouldn’t have fit on that record – it’s about as heavy as the band have ever been, with stormy guitars underpinned by dramatic vocal work from Lewis. It immediately follows opener ‘Let Me Back In’, which really couldn’t be any more at odds with it: A gorgeous acoustic number, with Lewis on more typical, honeyed form, and there’s a kind of playful innocence in her voice, largely absent from her solo albums, that marks it out as a Rilo Kiley song.
‘Runnin’ Around’ comes over as a nicely-struck compromise; it’s a pop song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Blacklight, but features more traditional Kiley guitar work than most of the other tracks on that record. ‘All the Drugs’ rounds off the collection of Blacklight-era material, and sounds like a gentler cousin of the band’s biggest hit, ‘Portions for Foxes’ – by no means a bad thing.
The remaining two original efforts aren’t quite as engaging; they definitely don’t sound as if they’ve followed the band’s tried-and-tested formula as closely as those initial four. The country-tinged ‘Bury, Bury, Bury Another’, underscored by slide guitar, sounds more like an offcut from Lewis’ first solo record with the Watson Twins, whilst you can almost hear listeners groaning as Sennett turns in his obligatory lead vocal on ‘Well, You Left’; his voice bears superficial resemblance to Elliott Smith‘s, but lacks much of the subtlety and nuance that made Smith’s so arresting, and the awkward shoehorning-in of American Football-esque trumpets is certainly no help.
Fleshing out RKives is a slew of B-sides, which, typically, are a mixed bag, from the sublime – ‘American Wife’s tale of frustrated-housewifery, ‘Patiently’s dual vocals over messy guitars – to the ridiculous – a remix of Blacklight cut ‘Dejalo’, inexplicably featuring Too $hort. For the most part, though, we’re firmly into fans-only territory here, although the inclusion of the charming ‘The Frug’ to close, the debut single plucked from The Initial Friend EP, is an inspired touch.
Whilst I couldn’t really recommend RKives as an ideal introduction to Rilo Kiley, it nonetheless, intentionally or otherwise, serves as a neat summation of the band’s career. Like so much of their previous output, it’s an incredibly bittersweet listen, but this time it’s less about Lewis’ wistful reflections and more to do with rueing what might have been if they’d continued; those first four cuts hint at a genuinely superb record having been in the works pre-split. Far from providing the closure fans were likely hoping for, RKives raises plenty more ‘whys’ and ‘what-ifs’; for a band who, lyrically, dealt so often with feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, it is, sadly, a fitting epitaph.