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Dissected: Jenny Lewis

on April 04, 2013, 12:01am
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dissected logo Dissected: Jenny LewisWelcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Rilo Kiley’s brilliant singer-songwriter.

Let it never be said that Jenny Lewis is a one-trick pony. Over her 34-year career (starting with a Jell-O commercial at age three, and yes, that means she’s somehow 37), she’s worn many hats. From neglect-battered daughter to teen feminist with a shotgun, from spindly twentysomething twee-pop to matured vintage country, from politi-soul to glam disco, her body of work seems to test her personal boundaries in a manner unique to her bizarre set of life experiences: when you’ve never known a predictable life, you tend to steer clear from predictable choices. So, although she might not hit the nail on the head every time, while you were explaining why her last project sucked, she’s been working on something new and totally unlike the last.

The latest piece of the J-Lew canon, the perfectly named Rilo Kiley rarities compilation, Rkives, arrives this week to much-deserved fanfare, but the album seems like all we’re going to get out of Lewis’ most successful foray for the foreseeable future. Call it Child-Star Emotional Fallout, but Lewis and bandmate/ex-boyfriend Blake Sennett seem tired. In any given interview the band members have done recently, the pair can hardly keep a dozen years’ seething resentment out of their voices when they talk about literally anything to do with the project: personal relationships, creative processes, solo albums, and now, allegedly permanent breakup. They might be on good enough terms to collect a few of their favorite old songs, but it seems the fertile years of the band’s discontent are behind them – at least for the time being.

In the meantime, Lewis has taken the time to finally move out of her famously terrible Silverlake apartment – and oddly, back into the Hollywood machine she abandoned as an adult. Working as music supervisor with Gyllenhaal mom Naomi Foner on her upcoming movie Very Good Girls, as well as prepping the inevitable fourth non-Kiley album, Lewis is treading in dangerous waters. Will any of her new ventures top the critical and commercial successes she’s racked up so far? Taking a gander at the vast expanse of Lewis’s three decades of magic-making might help put everything in perspective.

Note: We’re leaving a couple of projects off the list in the name of editorial license: numerous a la carte television appearances and commercials (Growing Pains, Golden Girls, Roseanne, Jell-O); a regular spot as Lucille Ball’s granddaughter on the comedian’s final, short-lived 1986 sitcom, Life with Lucy; her “band member” status on the Postal Service’s 2003 record Give Up; the European release of an Execution of All Things EP that included the band’s Lou Reed “After Hours” cover; and that 2008 Disney movie Bolt, to which Lewis contributed voice acting and a theme song that sounds like a Rabbit Fur Coat demo with transplanted G-rated lyrics. Thank us later.

Continued on next page…

Troop Beverly Hills, movie, 1989

Troop-Beverly-Hills-Jenny-Lewis

In a nutshell: Superficial, ditzy Beverly Hills housewife proves that she’s a worthwhile human being by becoming the leader of her daughter Hannah’s Wilderness Girls troop and involving a bunch of spoiled, neglected 12-year-old girls in her crumbling marriage.

Truest line Jenny Lewis has ever spoken on-screen: “I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t you two just kiss and make up? Then I won’t end up in therapy twice a week like Tessa!” –Hannah, to her parents

Is this real life? No, honey (and thank god).

Did Jenny Lewis get her taste in fashion from this movie? Likely.

Is Cheech Marin in this movie? How is Cheech Marin in this movie?

Moral of the story: You can reverse your divorce if you sell enough Girl Scout cookies to the 1%. 

Verdict: Jenny Lewis is way too good at playing the over-mature, emotional-casualty kid in her rich parents’ failing marriage.

The Wizard, movie, 1989

the wizard jenny lewis

In a nutshell: Fred Savage works out his parents’ divorce and the fallout from his sister’s recent death, with the help of stylish vagabond Jenny Lewis, by kidnapping his half-brother, a quiet, presumably autistic eight-year-old video game savant, from a group home and taking him to Los Angeles to compete in a video game tournament.

Thirteen-year-old Jenny Lewis reading Cosmopolitan in a bus station without adult supervision: Explains so much about Under the Blacklight.

Great moments in film history: Grown men steal $21.00 from three children; the Power Glove scene.

Does Jenny Lewis punch Fred Savage in the face? America

Speaking of America: Blatant product placement abounded in this flick, with everything from Nintendo NES and Super Mario Bros. to Hostess and Cosmo getting hawked. For this reason, basically everybody hated it when it was released.

How much did they hate it? It opened at No. 5, losing out by a significant margin to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Back to the Future Part II, and The Little Mermaid.

Verdict: The final installment of Lewis’s cutesy-kid movie era is way darker than it purports to be and proves that nobody knew what the hell was up with autism in 1989. But hey, if you liked Scott Pilgrim?

Runaway Daughters, premium-cable movie, 1994

runaway jenny lewis

In a nutshell: Overprotected teen girls in the 1950s fake their own kidnapping and steal a car to go on the run in search of one of their boyfriends, who gets his girl pregnant and then enlists to escape responsibility. Shotguns abound.

How is this a thing? In the ’90s, Showtime thought it was a great idea to let the guy who would later bless the world by producing George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget remake a bunch of 1950s rebel kid movies. He told Time magazine he was trying to see “what it would be like if you made Rebel Without a Cause today. It would be more lurid, sexier, and much more dangerous, and you definitely would have had Natalie Wood’s top off.” This one was a remake of the 1956 movie by the same name.

Surprising co-stars: Paul Rudd, Julie Bowen, the computer program doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, the raspy-voiced villainess from Casper, the dad from Freaks and Geeks

Think: Crybaby meets Thelma and Louise with a pinch of Troll 2 bizarro

Number of weird, Julie Bowen/Paul Rudd phone-sex scenes: 1

This must be a satire: Somehow, it’s not. 

Number of shotguns: 4

Number of shotguns wielded by Jenny Lewis: 1

Number of sexual assaults (by cops!) prevented by Jenny Lewis during said shotgun wielding: 2

Best line: “Don’t crowd me.” – Hoodrat Paul Rudd

Is it on Netflix? Duh, of course the weirdest Jenny Lewis movie is hidden in the depths of Netflix.

Verdict: J’s character is the only thing that feels sane about this movie. Especially with the shotgun.

Foxfire, movie, 1996 

jenny lewis foxfire

In a nutshell: Led by sexy feminist lesbian vagrant teen Angelina Jolie, four high school girls reclaim their independence from pedophiliac biology teachers, abusive dads, and Steubenville-y jocks.

Based on: A Joyce Carol Oates book of the same name.

Jenny plays: Scaredy-cat goody two-shoes Rita.

Jenny’s got a gun: Yes, again.

Highlights: The dad vampire from the Twilight movies, as a teenager, posing nude for his protagonist girlfriend’s photo shoot; Angelina Jolie saying the words, “I don’t even go here.”

Hedy Burress, who played the movie’s protagonist: went on to form a band voice a character in a number of Final Fantasy video games (Yuna).

First film wherein: 20-year-old Jenny hints at the Under the Blacklight future, by making her musical on-screen debut. Her prudish character supposedly wrote the song herself: Do you want to come inside my house?/Do you wanna show me things I’ve never seen before?/I don’t wanna tie you down/I just wanna tie you up.

Verdict: For Jolie buffs only, or if you can’t get enough of an armed, teenaged J. Also, Parents: who needs ’em?

Pleasantville, movie, 1998

jenny lewis pleasantville

In a nutshell: You know what Pleasantville is about.

Role: Reese Witherspoon’s gum-chewing valley girl minion-friend Christin.

Time on screen: 0:00:12 (0:00:52 if you count the whole scene).

Lines uttered: “Oh my god, here they come”; “Hey.”

The Cautionary Fashion Tale: Seriously, why, cap-sleeved white baby tees with choker necklaces? Why?

Verdict: 12 seconds.

The Initial Friend (Rilo Kiley), EP, 1999 (self-released)

InitialFriendEP-Front-Back

In a nutshell: Lewis and fellow child-star boyfriend Blake Sennett test out their new ambitions with an 8- or 9-song (depending on the pressing) self-released EP.

Versions currently out in the world: 3 separate pressings.

Is there a song in which Blake wishes death upon his mom’s boyfriend? You bet.

How crappy is it to live in Glendora? Your boyfriend will cheat on you with strippers and then succeed in getting you to make out with said strippers.

Best infidelity-flavored metaphor: “I’m just your wet nap” (“Glendora”).

Likelihood of getting your hands on one of these: slim 🙁

Verdict: The earliest RK record is also the band’s loosest collection, but thanks to extremely low stakes, it’s also the funniest.

Take Offs and Landings (Rilo Kiley), album, 2001 (Barsuk)

Rilo Kiley - Take Offs and Landings

In a nutshell: J and B decide music, not film, is definitely for them and start taking themselves way seriously. 14 tracks of emotionally distant yet oddly endearing proto-twee.

“Pictures of Success”: is a perfect song to wake up to, if you use an alarm clock app.

Ideal songbook: for beginner guitarists.

“Small Figures in a Vast Expanse”: sounds like Sennett had hoped his band would carry out Elliott Smith’s legacy.

Grapples with: Abandonment issues, communication breakdowns.

“I’m not that basic, I swear”: Jenny’s deepest fears, verbalized.

Verdict: The band’s full-length debut is almost too brainy, brimming with Lewis and Sennett’s obviously mutual desire to separate themselves from (and reckon with) their Hollywood pasts, but apparently gave them enough “serious musician chops” to explore some feelings on the next go.

The Execution of All Things (Rilo Kiley), album, 2002 (Saddle Creek)

rilo kiley 

In a nutshell: The most fan-beloved RK record, Execution defines the band’s “Saddle Creek era”; Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis produces.

Grapples with: Crippling social anxiety, loneliness, inability to love.

“A Better Son/Daughter”: Best portrayal of bipolar disorder ever committed to song.

Hate to say it: Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett the Couple break up, produce the most honest, emotionally laborious record of their career. Almost worth the eventual breakup of Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett the Songwriting Partners. (Almost!)

“Hail to Whatever You Found in the Sunlight That Surrounds You”: Is it about religion? Is it about the breakup? Either way… sick burn.

Verdict: Unassuming and fallible and emotionally devastating, Execution is everything its overachieving younger sibling More Adventurous was not: it’s the shy truth.


 

More Adventurous (Rilo Kiley), album, 2004 (Brute/Beaute, distr. by Warner Bros.)

rilo kiley more adventurous 

In a nutshell: The ostentatious crown jewel of the Rilo Kiley empire on all counts (songwriting, arrangements, lyrics, production) blends personal and political and manages to keep the whole arc annoyingly catchy.

Do Rilo Kiley hate George W. Bush? Did the hamster I named Rilo Kiley in 2004 have a death wish and repeatedly throw itself off the top level of its cage until it gave itself a heart attack?

Critical mass: Ye Almighty Robert Christgau blessed the album in the Village Voice in the same breath as describing Jenny Lewis as “a wet dream for indie boys.”

Firsties: “Portions for Foxes” was the inaugural sync on the Grey’s Anatomy pilot in March 2005.

Likelihood you illegally downloaded this album and thought some idiot had misspelled “Accidntel Deth” so it lived in your iTunes as “Accidental Death” for a few years: Substantial.

Perfect pop song: At 2:05, “Ripchord” is the shortest of the “Blake gets a turn once per album” songs in the band’s catalog.

Bad idea: to follow the record’s shortest song with the record’s most repetitive song (“I Never”).

Verdict: My hamster wasn’t actually named Rilo Kiley.

Actual verdict: The record deserves its hype. If Jenny Lewis hadn’t vetoed the raw songwriting of “Does He Love You?” in favor of edgier stuff like “Jack Killed Mom”, maybe Europe wouldn’t be going bankrupt, you know? 

Rabbit Fur Coat (Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins), album, 2006 (Team Love) 

rabbit fur coat

In a nutshell: With the help of two of the triplets of Belleville the Watson twins, Lewis crafts an outraged soul aura for herself that’s equal parts #RealTalk and #FirstWorldProblems.

Don’t try this at home, kids: “You are what you love, not what loves you back” is the reason we can’t have nice things.

Is the title track a veiled stab at J’s mom? If the rumors about the elder Lewis being the worst kind of cokehead, embezzling stage mom are true, unfortunately, yeah.

“But mostly I’m a hypocrite/ I sing songs about the deficit”: “I know you liked More Adventurous but we were kind of full of shit about all of that, so, sorry” –Jenny Lewis

Does “Rise Up With Fists!!” deserve both its exclamation marks? Yes, hush.

Does “Rise Up With Fists!!”… : …need a gospel choir? That’s exactly what I said.

That “Handle With Care” cover: Will be put in an indie-rock museum someday, but it’s still pretty insufferable.

No. 1 seed for a “Born Secular” cover: Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, though two years ago, money would’ve been on Amy Winehouse.

Verdict: Teeters along a tightrope between pretentious extravagance and unguarded soulfulness, but in the end, paints Solo Artist Jenny Lewis as a Woman with a Plan – a very good plan, even if she abandons it later on. (Alternately, it’s the musical manifesto for every intellectual, agnostic, suburban teenage white girl.)


 

Under the Blacklight (Rilo Kiley), album, 2007 (Warner Bros.)

rilokiley artwork Dissected: Jenny Lewis

In a nutshell: The gang goes mainstream-pop/disco on their ode to the L.A. underbelly, offends/confuses everybody except the poptimists. 

Number of years J seems to have been waiting for sonic justification to sing wearing as much lamé and designer heels as she wants: at least 1 (since the minor glam of the Rabbit Fur Coat tour), probably 17 (since the couture days of Troop Beverly Hills), but most likely 30 (since birth). 

Number of cutesy euphemisms for sex stuff: 3 (“You’ve got the moneymaker,” “Danger, do the smoke detector,” “Dejalo, nuestra cosa“), or 4 (if you count “Bruised like a cherry, ripe as a peach“)

Dumb luck: The album’s Sennett-sung cut “Dreamworld” was a huge hit in Russia, where it allegedly made it into the Russian equivalent of the top-40 rotation. 

Verdict: After a career-defining, emotionally draining record like More Adventurous, as well as a handful of solo records (RFC and two from Sennett’s The Elected), the band needed to let loose, bathe in major-label money and indulge their fucked up, superficial, child-star idiosyncrasies. It works, largely because their personal histories actually indicate they should’ve been making records like this all along, but doesn’t sufficiently scratch a Rilo Kiley itch.

 

Acid Tongue (Jenny Lewis), album, 2008 (Warner Bros./Rough Trade)

Jenny_Lewis-Acid_Tongue-Frontal

In a nutshell: JL goes rogue, lets her long-brewing penchant for old-timey Nashville country run wild.

Total length: 11 songs, 53 minutes, 19 seconds

Better idea: 35 minutes, tops

Bad crowd: Lewis explained in interviews that the ideas for this record came from hanging out with a bunch of older musicians at Johnathan Wilson’s house parties in Laurel Canyon. Also, Zooey Deschanel guests on “Pretty Bird”.

Should this have been a concept record centered around “The Next Messiah”? Just make “Carpetbaggers” go away.

Now with 10x more baby-faced boyfriend: Johnathan Rice, the test-tube baby of Nick Drake and Michael Pitt and later one half of Jenny and Johnny, makes his first appearance on a Jenny record.

Why it feels bad to hate this record? Because Jack White does this shit and gets away with it.

Verdict: Lewis exhausted any/all emotional wells on Rabbit Fur Coat, but the record misses the mark: her/her band’s previous works were lauded for their lyric complexity over pop melodies, and her delivery as a country singer doesn’t dig deep enough to leave a lasting impression.

I’m Having Fun Now (Jenny and Johnny), album, 2010 (Warner Bros.)

jenny johnny Dissected: Jenny Lewis

In a nutshell: JL makes a run at June Carter Cash, aided and abetted by aforementioned basset hound-eyed lover (conveniently named Johnny for added effect)

All I ever needed to know about Jenny and Johnny I could have already learned from: Acid Tongue cut “The Next Messiah” or Johnathan “Johnny” Rice’s Further North cut “End of the Affair”

Verdict: I actually miss Blake??

Rkives (Rilo Kiley), rarities compilation album, 2013 (Little Record Company)

collage rkives

In a nutshell: Rilo Kiley’s Greatest YouTube Gems, cobbled together like a yearbook.

Is there a Blake Sennett song, and is it one of the skippable ones? “Well You Left” is the newest track on the Blake Sennett’s Rilo Kiley greatest hits album of his dreams, but the mom’s-boyfriend-murder fantasy “Steve” would’ve been the preferable Blake cut.

Others cut from the team: “85”, “Papillon”.

The Too $hort/Zondo “Dejalo” remix: validates Under the Blacklight in its entirety.

Does the Too $hort remix excuse Jenny and Johnny? Jenny and Johnny is now permissible, but still not excusable.

Is the Too $hort remix a metaphorical olive branch? Back in 2006, Too $hort made a skeezy pass at Jenny Lewis and then “faked her out” by pretending to send her an email with his phone number in it. And then she told Pitchfork about it in an interview. So, maybe.

Should you try rolling down the windows and cranking the Too $hort remix while driving down the street in literally any neighborhood in America? Yes, absolutely, just yes to everything about that idea.

Verdict: The best thing to happen to Rilo Kiley fans since More Adventurous, and likely the last best thing for a long, long time. 🙁

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