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Astute indie listeners with ears to the ground have been coming up to call Rilo Kiley the best new American band of the year. A reputation -- including a habit of stealing shows -- is ever-growing. Music journalists, having dragged their sprezzatura out to analyze the Breeders, Superchunk, or Weezer, have been known to happily skip all the way home to write reviews that gush like adolescent love letters to the opening rock quartet instead. Even the New York Timeshas fallen in line, pronouncing The Execution of All Things, the group's sophomore full-length release, one of the year's best. As for me, I already know all the words to the new album, out on Saddle Creek Records (www.saddle-creek.com). Its eleven tracks play out like the diary of an optimistic Fifties pop star whose music has been deflowered by electric guitars and synthesizers, crushed and disenchanted by lost love and broken homes.
"Let's get together and talk about the modern age," opens darling, redheaded frontwoman Jenny Lewis on "The Good That Won't Come Out," a personal shaming of the bad she has done and the good she has failed to do. Lewis's self-consciousness becomes defeatism and guilt by mid-album, but then she rouses herself with stellar rock gems (beefed up by co-founder Blake Sennet's patriotic-sounding guitar riffs) that should be heartening to those who find strength in anger during times of paralyzing fear and depression. By the last song, the subtly twangy "Spectacular View," Lewis is praising the beauty of the coast, while wondering if it isn't too late to be happy.
"Maybe [the CD] is a celebration of the defeated," says the earnest 25-year-old, who has lived her life like an American fairy tale in reverse. Once upon a time, Lewis was a child star -- though she prefers the term "working child actress" -- made almost-famous by the role of Hannah Nefler in Troop Beverly Hills.
"To be completely honest, acting was never my choice," she admits. After her parents divorced, Lewis moved to Van Nuys with her mother and filled no fewer than two dozen film and television roles, the last of which was 2001's Don's Plum with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. "I was thrown into [acting] at a very young age. It took me awhile, maybe into my early twenties, but when I was old enough to say, 'I don't want to do this anymore,' I did."
What she did want was a band of her own. Eight years ago, Lewis met guitarist and co-vocalist Blake Sennet through a mutual friend. "I don't think he was very impressed with me at first," Lewis remembers, adding that it took a few collaborations before the two realized how well they complemented each other. "But from that moment on, we were like, 'Gosh, I guess we're gonna know each other for a while.'" While Sennet also writes and sings a few songs (and has tried his hand at acting as well), he has a glimmering eloquence on guitar that rounds out Lewis's Patti Page-esque purr like an emo-stoked Les Paul. "We're each other's editors," Lewis explains. "I feel really lucky to have someone like Blake to go to with things."
After the duo recruited multiguitarist Pierre deReeder and drummer Dave Rock (who's since been replaced with ample-fisted Jason Boesel, formerly of Evergreen), Rilo Kiley released its first full-length CD, Take Offs and Landings, on Seattle's Barsuk Records, home to Northwestern indie stalwarts Death Cab for Cutie.
The album was well received, yet last year, "circumstances" inspired Rilo Kiley to leave Barsuk and L.A. for Nebraska, where it kept warm amid the burning talent of Saddle Creek. It's a decision Lewis dissects on Execution's title track ("Then we'll go to Omaha, to work and exploit the booming music scene and humility") but does not regret at all.
"What good, nice, talented people," Lewis says of the Saddle Creek wunderkinds, which include Bright Eyes and the Faint. "More than anything else, I think that I've made a handful of friends that I'm going to know for a long time. And the music is brilliant there. I feel privileged to play shows with those guys."
Last week Rilo Kiley got the chance to rejoin its buddies from Omaha for a Saddle Creek showcase at sold-out Irving Plaza during the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. But Lewis, no stranger to industry rigmarole, can appreciate the attention without becoming a whore for it. "When I was up in Seattle, they gave me [Mr. Showcomedian] David Cross's new album. He talks about the parade of delusion that exists in Los Angeles. Wherever you go in L.A., there's this sense of urgency and desperation. Growing up with that gave me a different perspective," Lewis says, adding that her experiences in the recording capital of the country have turned her off to major labels. "I just want to make my kind of music and I don't want to sacrifice anything for it."
Lewis says her music is the tell-tale kind. "I think the focus, for me, is the story. My favorite artists are storytellers: Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Robert Smith, Morrissey." Lewis also lists Iron and Wine, a Miami-based acoustic act so delicate and beautiful it hurts, as one of her current favorites.
So what -- if not fame, fortune, and glory -- does the woman want from life? "I just hope that [the band] is evolving. I hope that we'll make another record, and that we'll be even more confident in the future," she responds, though not initially. When I ask Lewis, chatting from a Travelodge in Buffalo, where she'd like to be in the future, she responds with the heartbreaking, hopeful, and wonderful sentiment that shines through all her songs: "It'd be nice to be in love."