Let’s not front — it’s been a long six years since Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley’s last release as a cohesive musical unit. I can’t speak for every fan, but in my own personal trajectory, I’ve gone from a shy college freshman with an undeclared major and too many pairs of ripped Vans sneakers, playing “Silver Lining” on a loop while holed up in the library, to a (mostly) functional adult woman who even gets out on the weekends. When the band announced that they were splitting up in 2011, after 13 years, I was distracted by other things; a burgeoning love for more experimental bands like Dirty Projectors, for one thing, but also a sense that maybe it was just time. Forever isn’t natural, and if the gang wanted to call it quits, that was their prerogative.
Hearing RKives, the band’s new release of B-sides and rarities, is making their demise a little harder to stomach. Jenny Lewis’ voice on these tracks is as rich and sweet as ever, tinged with her residual child-actress sadness, and the boys in the background are as energetic and on top of it as they always were. As soon as you hear the opening chords of “Let Me Back In”, the first track, you know what’s in store is going to be good. “Let it be printed, let it be known / I’m leaving you, I’m going home, and all you can do is just watch me go,” Lewis sings. The song is as much an ode to Los Angeles as anything else, always a source of inspiration for the West Coast-based crew (even when they moved to Omaha). It feels like it’s 2007 again, and they were never gone.
“It’ll Get You There” is arguably as strong as anything the band has released. It follows the formula of a rock song in its most basic form, but as is pretty standard for this group, there’s some intangible element in play, something that not even an equally talented band could replicate in quite the same way. That x-factor is on full display here.
These tracks also contain plenty of the band’s ever-present whimsy, especially on “Well, You Left”, where Blake Sennett’s Elliott Smith-esque vocals take the stage. Turning navel-gazing sadness into real emotion has always been one of the group’s strong suits, and it’s in no short supply on RKives—this was a band for every young adult who demanded that their feelings be recognized as legitimate, even (or especially) when those feelings included anxiety about plane crashes and hospitals and freeways. This quality, well-established on their full-length debut, Take Offs and Landings, hasn’t ever gone away.
While there’s a lot to love on RKives, as with any postmortem compilation, it runs the risk of lacking cohesion and coming across as a jumble with no common threads. Though, Rilo Kiley is a band that has never strayed far from their roots, or from the big sounds that made them big. One notable exception on RKives is the remix of Under the Blacklight’s “Dejalo”, featuring rapper Too $hort—it’s a self-consciously ridiculous track that doesn’t ever pull off whatever genre bending it’s going for. Lewis’ voice is ill-suited for both rapping and Auto-Tune and Too $hort himself underwhelms, but “A” for effort, guys.
There are some flyover tracks here, and it’s easier to understand why they were left on the cutting room floor—“American Wife”, for example, takes a few pages from the band’s usual book of tricks, but fails to deliver anything new. “Patiently” receives extra points for featuring both Lewis and Sennett on vocals, as well as some exemplary guitar work from Sennett, but as a missive from a scorned lover, it never shows its teeth.
Every compilation album begs the question of whether or not its intended audience reaches no further than nostalgia-soaked fans, or whether its offerings stand a chance to draw in new listeners as well. Speaking as someone who can never go back and hear a Rilo Kiley track for the first time again, it still seems as though some of RKives’ strongest offerings have an appeal beyond reminiscence—this was always a group that stood out from the guitar-swinging crowd. Their songs were just that much catchier, that much tighter; Lewis’ voice was just that much more captivating.
“I can do the Frug,” she tells us on the last track, a throwback from the band’s first EP, The Initial Friend. “I cannot fall in love.” Whatever the band’s differences that led to their eventual demise may have been, these tracks stand as a testament to the fact that, for whatever it’s worth, they were really something once.
Essential Tracks: “Let Me Back In”, “It’ll Get You There”, and “Well, You Left”