Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis has a voice that manages to sound equal parts Debbie Harry, Patsy Cline and that cute little wounded songwriter girl you saw in high school but never talked to because you were Mr. or Ms. Too-Cool-For-School. A former child star (on Growing Pains) who may be the only actor ever to appear on both Murder She Wrote and Baywatch, Lewis is rather used to the spotlight.
Her background should serve Lewis well. After all, Rilo Kiley has rapidly evolved from the 4-track indie-twee and stone-washed alt-country of its earlier albums to full-on Arena Pop and a tour with Coldplay that brings both groups to Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Friday.
Kiley's third full-length album, More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute), instantly places the band as the latest heir to the Blondie/Pretenders tradition. More Adventurous -- which actually is less adventurous than the band's previous CDs, Take Offs and Landings and The Execution of All Things -- finds Lewis' band mate (and former lover) Blake Sennett turning his attention away from singing and towards shaping the group's sonic signature. This is fortunate, because 1) Sennett's voice isn't as distinctive as Lewis' heart-piercing alto, and 2) he has a great ear for acoustic instrumentation, which keeps Kiley from sinking into Cardigans/K's Choice territory.
All the pieces would seem to be in place for Rilo Kiley's ascent to post-indie stardom. Like recent music-glossy sensations such as Rooney and BoomKat, Kiley's pre-rock penance amongst Young Hollywood has prepared the band for immortality. In addition to Lewis' former TV work, Sennett is a veteran of Nickelodeon's Boy Meets World and the shoulda-been-a-hit Salute Your Shorts; he also had a recurring role on 3rd Rock from the Sun.
Since the band aligned itself with famed Omaha indie Saddle Creek Records (Bright Eyes, Cursive, The Faint), Lewis and Sennett's mainstream TV stardom has been tempered by its hip cred. In 2004, Rolling Stone named Rilo Kiley its top rock act of the year. Elvis Costello recently selected the band for a Starbucks-distributed "mix CD" of some of his favorite songs. Then Chris Martin tapped Kiley to open for Coldplay's current tour.
Did I mention that Lewis also sings with Sub Pop breakout band the Postal Service, along with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard? That's her you hear on the band's hit, "Nothing Better." As for Sennett, he has his own Sub Pop band: The Elected. And now Lewis is preparing her own, Stefani-esque solo debut.
Rilo Kiley's career path looks like the one that the late, great La's might have taken with a little more luck. (The British La's, you may or may not remember, were the Stone Roses before the Stone Roses became the New Beatles, only to be replaced later by Oasis. Got that?) So far, though, there've been no signs of straitjacket behavior among the Kiley kids, although Lewis has admitted to occasionally recording in the nude to make herself sound "more vulnerable." (A pause here while record geeks everywhere clean themselves up.)
And why not Rilo Kiley? Now seems as good a time as any for this band to reach for the pop-rock crown, seeing as how there are so few real contenders for that throne. Coldplay? Maybe in terms of sheer popularity, but Martin and company give off too strong a whiff of the morose, and Martin is just too intentionally anthemic. R.E.M? Not since Clinton left office. U2? Too monolithic. The Strokes? Too streaky, and only vaguely emotional, like when you wake up feeling sort of weird and want to write a poem, but all that comes out is some babble about last night's bender and a couple unanswered voice mails.
With the ascension of hip-hop and R&B to the pop charts (after years of separate-but-unequal treatment by SoundScan and Billboard -- "Urban" charts, anyone?), high-quality guitar-based pop-rock has largely gone underground, even as college rock has graduated from the dorm to the boardroom demographic. Most guitar-based radio pop (cue up John Mayer) lacks the verve, the vivacity or the vagina to pair theater-floor-sticky hooks with songwriting that has a long shelf life.
Lewis and Sennett, here's your chance. The wedding rings might not have been in the offing, but the brass one's right there for the taking.
Rilo Kiley open for Coldplay this Friday at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. Call 704-522-6500 for tickets and show info.