Rilo Kiley, the Southern California indie-rock band that flourished through most of the 2000s, began with a humble EP released in 1999. That EP, self-titled, and then renamed The Initial Friend during a third pressing, has long been a rarity among Rilo Kiley fans. After all, there really isn’t much material from the band, to begin with. From 1999 to 2007, they released just four full-length albums in addition to this initial EP. In 2013, the band released rkives, which re-released a few buried treasures for the first time. However, while Rilo Kiley was the charming start of a relatively short band career, the musicians in the group—perhaps most notably co-lead vocalist and guitarist, Jenny Lewis—have gone on to numerous other projects in their musical scene. Was the greatness there to begin with? What was it about Rilo Kiley that hooked listeners, and how did that charm evolve over the next seven years? To celebrate the official physical re-release and first-ever digital release of Rilo Kiley, we’re taking a look back at where it all started.
Rilo Kiley took its official shape in 1998, with young twenty-somethings Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett equally leading the group. While both play guitar, keyboards, and Lewis bass guitar, Lewis only agreed to join the band when Sennett agreed to share co-vocalist duties. Their equally distinct voices would subsequently take turns leading on their first few albums. Joining the pair, who were also romantically involved at the time, were bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Dave Rock (Rock would be replaced by Jason Boesel in 2001).
While de Reeder and Sennett had attended high school together, Lewis and Sennett were introduced by a common friend. The two may have been in similar circles, as they both started working young as child actors. Many still remember Lewis from small parts on The Golden Girls or in Troop Beverly Hills, while Sennett made an impression in Salute My Shorts and as a suburban tough on Boy Meets World.
So, what is a Rilo Kiley anyway? Like all ambiguous, nearly-nonsense band names, the inspiration for it is a moving target. Sennett has told varying stories about the inspiration for the name, but in general, the idea is that the name came from an athlete listed in an old sport’s almanac. This may have been in a dream, or this may have been a dream person who foretold Lewis’ death.
Regardless, the band, now known as Rilo Kiley, had their first concert at the indie-rock nightclub Spaceland in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles in January 1998. At this concert was comedian and actor Dave Foley, of Kids in the Hall and NewsRadio; Foley was such a fan of the band that he eventually helped fund their recording sessions for the self-released first imprint of Rilo Kiley. The EP consisted of eight tracks, with a hidden track tucked in at the end. The EP would be re-released in 2000 and 2001, with different track listings each time and the Initial Friend title for the third pressing. The track listings change around quite a bit, but a few tracks are always present: “Frug,” “85,” “Papillon,” “Asshole,” and “Sword.” Other tracks like “Glendora,” “Teenage Love Song,” “Gravity,” and “Troubadours” appear on two but not all three. Their first notable single, “Frug,” is always track one. Additionally, in keeping with their dual leadership goals, every track is written by Lewis and Sennett. This re-release follows the second pressing track list, which contains the best songs on the first and third pressings.
The nine tracks of Rilo Kiley demonstrate a lot of what made Rilo Kiley appealing. For the most part, the songs are direct, grounded, and self-aware enough to poke fun at themselves if need be. Lewis and Sennett sing like they are your friends down the street, not Too Cool young adults grooving around Silverlake. The album begins inconspicuously with “Frug,” a craftily charming ditty that feels shaggy on purpose. Lewis’ vocals reflect her young age, but she is already learning how to deliver lines with just enough salt in them to overcome the sweetness. Although most of the tracks here require her to use her quieter, coy vocal skill, she demonstrates on songs like “Teenage Lovesong” and “Gravity” that she can apply a lot more lung power if needed.
“Papillon” is a great example of the band’s ability to take seemingly large subjects and convert them into intimate tales. Ostensibly about the prisoner Henri Charriere, Lewis and Sennet deftly sing in and out of solos and duets through each verse and chorus. As their voices join in the phrases “Don’t you know it’s true? /I fell in love with you/and don’t you think it’s sad? /’Cause here we both stand/amidst the wreckage of our past,” you can hear 14-year-old girls sighing across the nation.
That romanticism, found in some of the best Rilo Kiley tracks, is already present here throughout. “Always,” for instance, contains intimate and personable lyrics like “I should’ve known/with a boy like you/your middle name is always/I’d always want you.” However, this is one song in which you can track the growth of the band. Rilo Kiley would re-record “Always” for release on Take-Offs and Landings, with much more extensive and full-bodied instrumentation. Listening to this early version, we can appreciate the rate at which these musicians were evolving and developing their skills.
However, on tracks such as “85”, we get an example of the care already put into these early songs. The delicate guitar work here carries the song along beautifully. The two following songs, “Glendora” and “Teenage Lovesong,” illustrate different but compatible traits. “Glendora” is an up-tempo kicky song with striking but unself-conscious lines like “And would you fuck me? ‘Cause I’d fuck me” in a song all about being taken advantage of and used. However, there is no time for self-pity as the chorus finds Lewis almost taunting herself (“I cry, cry, cry, then I complain”) before admitting her flaws with a kind of shrug and moving on (“Come back for more, do it again”).
“Teenage Lovesong,” however, points towards the mini-epics that would pop up in Take-Offs and Landings and especially The Execution of All Things. Lewis sings about a young love affair in relatively mundane detail (“It was my first time, we did it just twice/ Went out for some sodas, when will you return?”) as the music and her voice become more melodramatically impassioned. It makes the small seem epic, and Lewis and Sennett would soon become adept at writing songs that capture that magic balance.
“Sword,” then, is an ironic acknowledgment of the discomfort of writing a straightforward “love song.” They seem to inevitably highlight their young age and relative inexperience with lines like “’cause when I talk about you/It’s just like the movies I’ve seen.” Looking back at this song now, it is endearing to see a young band wanting to write about bigger feelings without having experienced them yet. When compared to the future material of these songwriters, it can’t help but demonstrate their youth.
The final two tracks, “Asshole” and “Gravity,” illustrate their array of influences and willingness to try whatever feels natural. “Asshole” includes some distorted, electronic, nearly hip-hop effects that would feel natural on future songs like “Accidntel Deth” and anything from Under the Blacklight. “Gravity,” meanwhile, brings forth the influence country music had on Lewis in particular as she twangs with the best of them several years before she produced her own country album with Rabbit Fur Coat. There are an abundant amount of seeds sown in Rilo Kiley for the future of these performers. It’s not only a joy to listen to because of its nostalgic factor, but because there is already evident talent on display within these 33 minutes.
After the release of Rilo Kiley, the use of “Frug” in the Christina Ricci film Desert Blue, and on the TV show “Once and Again” undoubtedly helped boost their profile. This boosting soon got them signed with indie label Barsuk Records for their first full-length release in 2001, Take-Offs and Landings. Each subsequent album brought more success and more impressive songwriting. For their second full-length, The Execution of All Things, the band moved to Saddle Creek Records, the same imprint as Conor Oberst and his group Bright Eyes. Rilo Kiley and its various members would collaborate with Oberst numerous times in the following years.
By 2004, Rilo Kiley finally achieved their most significant breakout with More Adventurous. Released on their imprint, Brute/Beaute Records, and distributed through Warner Bros., this album not only marks a shift away from being technically an “indie” band but also a movement away from Sennett and Lewis double-duty vocals. Lewis is notably featured more on More Adventurous and would be just as heavily featured on their 2007 release Under the Blacklight. 2004 would prove to be the turning point for the band, as the success of singles like “Portions for Foxes” garnered them spots on late-night shows, as well as opening spots on the 2005 Bright Eyes tour and the U.S. leg of the 2005 Coldplay tour. This was also when the members began branching off into their own distinct projects. Sennett and Jason Boesel released an album as The Elected in 2004, while Lewis sang backup vocals with the Postal Service the same year.
In 2006, Lewis’ acclaimed first album, apart from Rilo Kiley, Rabbit Fur Coat, was released. This confirmation of band members’ outside pursuits, along with the disco-pop Under the Blacklight, seemed to signal the end for Rilo Kiley. While the band’s breakup wasn’t hinted at until 2010, and not officially confirmed until 2014, fans realized the end was nigh with Under the Blacklight. The SoCal disco chill of this last Rilo Kiley album demonstrated just how far they had moved from the country-alt-rock of the 1999/2000 Rilo Kiley EP. The band members had evolved at lightning speed and were ready to move down new avenues.
Fortunately for all of us, they have moved down those avenues very well. Jenny Lewis’ post-Rilo Kiley career has been littered with exciting solo albums and side projects like Jenny and Johnny and Nice as Fuck. Sennett most recently released an album in 2017 with another project, Night Terrors of 1927. Jason Boesel has contributed to countless indie-rock albums, including those by Bright Eyes, Jakob Dylan, The Elected, and Jenny & Johnny. Occasionally, band members will reunite on-stage—as Sennett did with Lewis during a Coachella performance of “Portions for Foxes”—but by and large, Rilo Kiley is dead. The group burned bright and hot, with exciting sonic and songwriting evolutions with every new album. The seeds were there with the second EP release in 2000, and now 20 years later, fans get to relive those early, rough but ambitious days all over again with the renewed accessibility of Rilo Kiley.