Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous – Classic Music Review

I’ve had this sucker near the top of my to-do list for years. Every time my eyes lighted upon More Adventurous, my first reaction was “Oh yeah, gotta do that one.” What stopped me was my second response: “Ugh.”

The “ugh” reaction has nothing to do with my opinion of the album, which is actually quite favorable. The “ugh” comes from the happenstance that More Adventurous came out in 2004, during a period in my life that I’d rather forget. I should note here that none of the other albums I picked up that year trigger the “ugh” reaction. Not Underachievers Please Try Harder. Not Franz Ferdinand. Not Half Smiles of the Decomposed.

American Idiot definitely triggers the “ugh” reaction, but I didn’t buy that record. I think Green Day sucks.

And the “ugh” reaction to that highly overrated album is different than the one sparked by More Adventurous. This “ugh” is accompanied by a sinking feeling in my stomach because the album forces me to remember just how fucked-up a human being I was during that period.

Baby, I was bad news personified.

Rilo Kiley began life as one of the many indie bands that popped up around the turn of the century, freely following their musical instincts and hoping to make enough money to get by. Their early music might be described as a triangulation of twee, rock and country with greater instrumental diversity than your typical indie band, accompanied by irreverent, uncensored lyrics in accordance with looser millennial norms. They released an EP and two independently labeled and marketed albums. Each subsequent release showed more promise than its predecessor, but the challenges inherent in independent distribution (limited marketing resources, mainly) restricted their access to a broader audience.

For More Adventurous, the band decided to try something different: publish the album under their own imprint and cut a deal with Warner Brothers to handle the distribution. This provided the band with the opportunity to reach a larger audience, but other indie artists have had similar opportunities and wound up blowing it with a compromise product that offended the original fan base and failed to catch the fancy of any recognizable segment of the mainstream.

That did not happen with More Adventurous. The soundscape still features the diverse instrumentation and stylistic shifts that marked their earlier efforts, but the sound is brighter and the presentation feels more focused. Most importantly, Jenny Lewis fully embraced the lead role, bringing more confidence, command and nuance to her vocals. Her songwriting skills (with several assists from lead guitarist and ex-partner Blake Sennett) rose several notches without losing the no-bullshit emotional honesty that made you pay close attention whenever she stepped up to the mike. More Adventurous is a remarkable creation that successfully balances pathos with witty observations about the state of humankind in the year 2004 A. D.

Chris Dahlen of Pitchfork would violently disagree with that assessment. “Unfortunately, the songs (and especially the lyrics) don’t give Lewis the support she deserves. More Adventurous opens with its weakest number, ‘It’s a Hit’, whose painfully awful lyrics criticize the President by comparing him to a monkey that throws its own feces.” Robert Christgau, on the other hand, placed “It’s a Hit” eighth on his list of the top songs of the decade.

Classic Pitchfork: spend thirty seconds on a song, reach all sorts of erroneous conclusions and call it a wrap. Though I have my issues with Christgau and I don’t care much for ranking systems, I share his sentiments. “It’s a Hit” is a multi-faceted, acerbic and insightful look at the more obscene tendencies of the human race.

Here’s the “controversial” opening verse:

Any chimp can play human for a day
Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform
And run for office on election day
Fancy himself a real decision-maker
And deploy more troops than salt shakers
But it’s a jungle when war is made
And you’ll panic and throw your own shit at the enemy
The camera pulls back to reveal your true identity
Look, it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing
A smoking gun holding ape

Abridged version for dummies: “The existence of war proves that on a very fundamental level, the human race has not progressed beyond the territorial tendencies of our evolutionary ancestors.” Though Bush II comes to mind in the context of the times, he’s just one of many politicians elected in part because they “served our country” (even if the service was a bullshit National Guard assignment). And all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, throw shit at their enemies when they’re caught in the act of doing something insidious and vile. Dahlen completely missed the larger issues raised by the verse . . . and completely ignored verses two through four, which further broaden the scope of the song.

The second verse deals with the pathetic urge of the dominant male to impress others by collecting and displaying various possessions that communicate his “identity” (“Any asshole can open a museum/Put all the things he loves on display so everyone can see ’em”). “Possessions” include “the house, a car, a thoughtful wife,” in keeping with the masculine nature of American society. The third verse describes the tendency of the populace to fall in love with the shiny new thing, with the latest craze, or, in this case, the preppie author whose first release dazzled the audience and is under pressure to produce another masterpiece . . . or else:

But it’s a sin when success complains
And your writer’s block, it don’t mean shit
Just throw it against the wall and see what sticks
Got to write a hit
I think this is it
It’s a hit

And if it’s not
Then it’s a holiday for hanging

Jenny closes her panorama of a dysfunctional society by capturing its need to make its collective bloodlust appear civilized through the establishment of legal procedures, allowing those responsible for executions to claim they were only following orders while justifying their misdeeds through the trappings of Christianity. But instead of attacking the system, Jenny wisely chose to confront the individual conscience:

Any fool can play executioner for a day
And say with fingers pointed in both directions
“He went thataway”
It’s only a switch or syringe
Exempt from eternal sins
But you still wear a cross
And you think you’re going to get in
Ah, but the pardons never come from upstairs
They’re always a moment too late
But it’s entertainment
Keep the crowd on their toes
It’s justice, we’re safe
It’s not a hit, it’s a holiday
Shoo bop, shoo bop, my baby
It’s a holiday for hanging, yeah 

The insertion of “Shoo bop, shoo bop, my baby” may appear superfluous, but it underscores our shoulder-shrugging tendency when (as another Bush once said about mass killings) “shit happens.” The music supporting “It’s a Hit” is ironically on the light and cheery side to emphasize the façade, with a brass band and sweet counterpoint guitar from Blake Sennett highlighting the mix. The arrangement clears out sufficient space for the listener to hear the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and Jenny’s delivery, mingling “tired conversational” and “girl group lead singer plaintiveness,” curiously manages to hit the mark.

The best analysis of “Does He Loves You?” can be found in a more-than-worthy essay on American Songwriter:

“Does He Love You?” would be noteworthy if only for the clever way the story is structured. The narrator is speaking to her pregnant, married friend who lives across the country and is questioning whether the domestic life is the right choice for her. The narrator, on the other hand, is having an affair with a married man. Only in the song’s climax is it revealed that they are both talking about the same guy, as Lewis belts out the bittersweet closing lines: “And your husband will never leave you/He will never leave you for me.”

Yet the song could easily have come off as contrived if the emotions and motivations of the characters weren’t rendered so expertly. Both the narrator and her friend regret the fact that their happiness is tied to another person, both feeling “flawed” that they are “not free.” Lewis’ vocal performance also assures that the song won’t feel like a bad soap opera, as she rises from a gentle, contemplative tone in the early verses to an anguished wail as the song closes out. The music undergoes a similar transformation, with the carnival-like keyboards in the opening verses giving way to squalling guitars and soaring strings in the denouement.

I love it when critics actually bother to study the work they’re reviewing. Kudos to Jim Beviglia!

I do admire the craft that went into the song’s creation, but I don’t share Mr. Beviglia’s fondness of the arrangement—I think the “anguished wail” would have been better served by a quieter background that doesn’t compete for attention with Jenny’s vocal. I fully agree that “Does He Love You?” is a superbly constructed song, one that exposes the layers of self-and-other deception that enter into so many allegedly intimate relationships. And like all women, I can relate easily to the cultural push to find a partner (preferably a male partner) before you’re past your physical prime, a self-denying motivation guaranteed to poison the relationship from the get-go.

But I relate much more easily to “Portions for Foxes,” unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong—it’s one of my all-time favorite songs. I’ve spent hours attempting to master Blake Sennett’s guitar parts with limited success (I think his tones are absolutely beautiful). I’ve never even thought of attempting Jenny Lewis’ vocal, which I consider one of the greatest rock vocals ever recorded. The song is a masterpiece of effective variation in dynamics, the quieter parts serving to make the syncopated guitar-bass-drum thrusts shockingly explosive. Pierre de Reeder’s bass part is subtly phenomenal and Jason Boesel is in full command of the syncopated punctuation demanded by the song. I fell in love with “Portions for Foxes” the first time I heard it and love it with the same intensity today.

But once I really absorbed the lyrics, I felt embarrassed and humiliated. If you can be embarrassed and humiliated and accept that it’s good for you, that’s a growth experience par excellence. It took me years to accept it, though—habits are habits, routines are hard to break, and shit, I was twenty-three.

I was in the “young adult stage,” according to the psychologists. Erik Erikson (the man who invented the term “identity crisis”) described this phase of life thusly: “The young adult, emerging from the search for and insistence on identity, is eager and willing to fuse their identity with others. He [or she] is ready for intimacy, that is, the capacity to commit . . . to concrete affiliations and partnerships.” True for some, not true for me and not true for the narrator in “Portions for Foxes.”

In verse one, the narrator berates herself for “talking trash,” but she’s not talking about dissing someone: she’s talking about the suggestive, smart-ass bullshit that comes out of the mouth of a young woman attempting to establish a relationship on her own terms without being particularly clear about what the terms are. Displaying attitude is a classic method for hiding one’s vulnerability, and playing hard to get still remains an effective means of raising a prospective partner’s testosterone levels:

There’s blood in my mouth
Because I’ve been biting my tongue all week
I keep on talking trash but I never say anything
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left

And it’s bad news
Baby, I’m bad news
I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news

The narrator lives in the era of “friends with benefits,” a handy new term that sanctions what has been going on behind the tattered curtains of motel rooms for decades: sex without commitment. Though I usually didn’t have much of a problem getting laid during this period of my life, there were times when I’d hit one of Mick Jagger’s losing streaks. I’d spend the night tossing, turning and fingering, suffering from horniness-driven insomnia, trying to resist the urge to reach out to one of my FWB’s. I wasn’t really close to any of them; they were transactional relationships similar to taking out a loan or getting my teeth cleaned. I remember how embarrassing it was to make that call, and how I knew deep down in my soul that the benefits received would barely scratch the itch . . . but fuck it:

I know I’m alone if I’m with or without you
But just being around you offers me another form of relief
When the loneliness leads to bad dreams
And the bad dreams lead me to calling you
And I call you and say, “C’MERE!” 

Jenny’s delivery of that “C’MERE!” is the sound of the archetypal bitch in heat: burning with desire, ashamed of the vulnerability. Gives me the fucking chills every time.

The rocking arrangement vanishes for the bridge, where the pizzicato guitar establishes a mood of fragility, like tiptoeing across thin ice. The cold reality of the FWB relationship comes to the fore in Jenny’s hopeless tone and bleak lyrics, leading her to consult Psalm 63 for an analogy:

Because you’re just damage control
For a walking corpse like me
Like you 

Because we’ll all be
Portions for foxes (2)

The lines in the psalm read as follows:

Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice.

8 My soul followeth hard after thee: thy right hand upholdeth me.

9 But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth.

10 They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes.

I’ve never been able to resolve the many contradictions between the often gruesome Old Testament and the non-violent nature of the gospels, but I don’t think Jenny is giving us a theology lesson here. I think she’s using the analogy to highlight the soul-draining experience of commitment-less relationships while acknowledging some residue of religion-induced guilt.

But in the end, she says “fuck it” and accepts the relationship as yet another imperfect human experience:

There’s a pretty young thing in front of you
And she’s real pretty and she’s real into you
And then she’s sleeping inside of you (heavy breathing)
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left 

And it’s bad news
I don’t blame you
I do the same thing
I get lonely too

Don’t we all. I look back at that period and want to beat myself up for using others before I realize, “Hey, they were using me, too!” Not the prettiest picture, but we’re talking about real life here, and real life can get pretty messy.

“Ripchord” is Blake Sennett’s elegy for Elliott Smith, who died around the time More Adventurous was recorded. The lo-fi enhanced acoustic presentation reflects Smith’s earlier work as opposed to the (slightly) more elaborate productions that followed his Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery” (featured in Good Will Hunting). The stark simplicity of the music reflects the emotional honesty of the song, one that humanizes Smith rather than trying to idealize him:

And even fancy things have finally lost their charm
Wine and diamond rings they never get you anymore
And you’re sleeping again alone
Because nobody loves you 

And they should have seen you
Should have known you
Should have known what it was like to be you 

“Should have known what it was like to be you” is one powerful line when you realize that despite his artistic achievements and broad recognition, the real Elliott Smith struggled with mental illness and addiction for years. Like Phil Ochs, who battled similar demons in his too-brief life, Smith died in his mid-30’s. Some say it was suicide, some suspect homicide, but Blake Sennett knew the guy and his more ambivalent response sounds more true to the mark:

So come on kid
Look at what you did
I don’t know if you meant it but you did yourself in
And I was even having a good day when we found out we lost you

“Ripchord” is a very moving piece, placed perfectly in the track order between two high-intensity Jenny Lewis vocals to highlight its unique qualities.

One reviewer claimed that Jenny was channeling Dusty Springfield when she did the vocal on “I Never,” a claim supported by a New York Times piece that noted Jenny’s admiration for Dusty and Loretta Lynn. To my ears, her vocal falls somewhere in between Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Another claim verified by the participant herself features Jenny recording the vocal sans vêtements in the studio. That’s an image designed to spark many a fantasy, but regardless of whom she was trying to emulate or whether she was stripped to the gills or bundled in furs, the only thing that matters is the finished product.

Well, as Jenny once sang, “And sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on,” and she is seriously fucking on in “I Never.”

The whiny guy at Pitchfork (wait, let me scroll up and get his name) . . . Oh yes, Chris Dahlen . . . didn’t think much of the song and berated Jenny for repeating the word “never” 27 times. Dude! Leave the math behind and connect with your emotional intelligence! Those repetitions are the best part of the song! Everyone who has ever been truly in love knows that words are completely inadequate when it comes to describing the depth and enormity of the F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E. (thank you, Jarvis Cocker). The tonal variations in those twenty-seven renditions communicate a multitude of feelings—tenderness, delight, anxiety, commitment, satisfaction, regret, resolve, insecurity, appreciation—jeez maneez, dude! “The song runs out of words” my ass!

Harrumph!

“The Absence of God” highlights a quality you’ll find often in Rilo Kiley’s music: light music applied to heavy topics. Here the music is dominated by a sweet acoustic guitar duet while the narrator struggles with the existence/nonexistence of god and the consequences thereof. As noted in an excellent article on by Kristin Rawls on Bitch Media, Jenny has written frequently on the topic of religion, firmly condemning religious hypocrisy while expressing ambivalence about the value of religious belief. This particular vignette features a narrator frustrated with the lack of forward movement in her relationship, musing over possibilities to kickstart the romance. “The absence of god will bring you comfort, baby,” she assures her lover, then follows that statement in classic existential style with a series of choices they could make when free from the grip of religion. After all, if there is no god, human beings are free to make their own choices and live/learn from the consequences . . . with the inconvenient complication that flawed human beings often make flawed choices:

We could be daytime drunks if we wanted
We’d never get anything done that way, baby
And we’d still be ruled by our dueling perspectives
And I’m not my perspective
Or the lies I’ll tell you every time

As we learn more about the narrator and her disaster movie mindset coupled with self-destructive tendencies (“And I say there’s trouble when everything is fine/The need to destroy things creeps up on me every time”), we realize that she is motivated primarily by desperation—pretty shaky grounds for either accepting or rejecting god. I love the ambivalence and multiple layers of meaning in the song, allowing the listener to reach their own conclusions.

“Accidntel Deth” (the spelling reflects producer Jimmy Tamborello’s fetish with unnecessary vowels) offers the intriguing concept that the “victim” may have inadvertently contributed to their “accidental death” but falls short of supporting the concept with more concrete examples. Next up is the title track, with its country feel accentuated by pedal steel guitar and harmonica. It’s a sweet piece of work that essentially defines “more adventurous” as “becoming more open to the beautiful possibilities inherent in true love.”

And if you banish me from your profits
And if I get banished from the kingdom up above
I’d sacrifice money and heaven all for love
Let me be loved
Let me be loved

Underscoring the rejection of conventional means of sacrament and legal procedure, the last verse focuses on what is most important:

For me to be saved and you to be brave
We don’t have to walk down that isle
Because if marriage ain’t enough well
At least we’ll be loved

Jenny employs many different voicings on the album, but I think “More Adventurous” is her sweetest and most grounded performance.

We get back to kicking some ass with “Love and War (11/11/46),” a fascinating composition with two distinct narratives. The first, contained within the first three verses, describes the collapse of morality that accompanies every war. Jenny wisely avoids the raping-and-pillaging part, focusing instead on the looser environment occasioned by the feeling of impending doom. “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SOON SO LET’S FUCK OUR BRAINS OUT.” Cultural norms often pressured couples guilty of pre-marital sex to make things official, but really, that was then, this is now, and what the hell are we doing standing at this altar?

Why must you try to ruin my peace of mind?
And they were only words and I never meant them
I never loved you
Even in my weakness
You were fuel for the fire – cannon fodder

The second narrative introduces us to a WWII vet viewed by those responsible for his care as an alien from a planet no one ever heard of:

And my grandpa drank, fell, and broke his face in two
When the cops arrived, he exclaimed, “I fought in World War II”
And then carried him to darkened hospital room
And said, “No modern person here remembers you
And we can’t identify the enemy
And it could be you so it’ll cost you”
And it only cost me my wife
And my job
Now what?

The final verse features the narrator and her mom going to the hospital to identify the body (though mom made her wait outside) and going to the cemetery . . . all over a stop-time rock beat punctuated with Beatle-like handclaps. The energetic arrangement completely demolishes the natural expectation that a military funeral would be marked by solemnity, and her mother’s parting words form a defense of the looser morality of the war years:

“Love and war, in heaven and in hell
You get what you deserve
You’d better spend it well
All is fair in love and war and love
A civil war like this it always sells itself”

You can interpret “civil war” in two ways—an ironic comment about a world that establishes rules of engagement covering acceptable ways to kill people or the belief that we are all one human race and therefore all wars are civil wars.

“A Man/Me/Then Jim” is written in nonlinear narrative form with Jenny appearing in multiple roles, so when you’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on, keep in mind Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that “a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” For those who may feel frustrated with the jumble, let me remind you that linear order is something we impose on reality and not reality itself. The truth does not always come packaged with step-by-step instructions.

The three verses are structured as follows:

  1. The funeral of a guy named Jim who committed suicide. The narrator is an unknown man, a friend of Jim who attends the funeral. This is the ending.
  2. An interaction with a salesperson who happens to be Jim’s wife. The narrator is “me” (it really doesn’t matter who “me” is). The wife divulges that Jim’s “a-leaving,” so we can safely assume that Jim is still alive at this point. This is the beginning.
  3. The narrator of the last verse is Jim himself, who has by this time left his wife and is attempting reconciliation. This is the middle.

The interesting twist in all this is the miscommunication between Jim and his wife that eventually leads to Jim’s death. The wife claims “Well, my husband, he’s a-leaving/And I can’t convince him to stay,” while Jim believes with all his heart that she threw his ass out.

I was driving south from Melrose
I happened upon my old lover’s old house
I found myself staring at the closed-up door
Like the day she threw me out
“Diana, Diana, Diana, I would die for you
I’m in love with you completely
I’m afraid that’s all I can do”
She said, “You can sleep upon my doorstep
You can promise me indifference, Jim
But my mind is made up
And I’ll never let you in again”

No wonder Jim’s suicide note turns out to be a big fuck you to the missus: “If living is the problem/Well, that’s just baffling.” The wife grudgingly admitted in her conversation with “me” that “I’m sorry I’m hard to live with/Living is the problem for me.” What really killed Jim was “the slow fade of love,” described as the realization that once the glow of marital bliss has faded, you find yourself living a lie:

For the slow fade of love
It might hit you from below
It’s your gradual descent into a life you never meant
It’s the slow fade of love

The music has the feel of Jimmy Buffett-style decadence with its acoustic guitar and bongoes, with faint organ serving as a subconscious reminder of mortality. I love good stories, and “A Man/Me/Then Jim” is a good story told well—one that makes me wish that the Lewis-Sennett songwriting team would have held it together longer than they did.

The album ends with Jenny’s take on Elliott Smith’s death, “It Just Is.” In contrasting the two elegies, Blake’s is stronger in terms of emotional impact while Jenny’s reminder “That it just is/That everybody dies” is more uncomfortable. The human race goes to great lengths to avoid the simple truth that life has an ending.

One would naturally expect that an album featuring three different producers would result in a disjointed mess, but the production values on More Adventurous are remarkably consistent. The diversity of the musical content is refreshing rather than confusing, and the album is loaded with great stories and superb performances. Though it was a difficult journey for me to circle back and reconnect with More Adventurous some fifteen years later, I’m glad I made the trip—it’s always nice to find out that an album you thought was the bees’ knees turns out to be better than you remembered.

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