My First Indie Band: Rilo Kiley

I didn’t really start listening to music until around my junior year of high school. For most of that year, I listened to maybe five bands: Oasis, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, and The White Stripes. These bands don’t really have much in common, and in some instances it’s hard to even come up with an explanation for why I liked them in the first place. I think it was mostly just that they were there. I had no real knowledge or context when it came to music, so I went for whatever bands fell into my lap. Not that I was totally a blank slate without opinions: I knew there was music I hated, like Smash Mouth. But I didn’t really know what kind of music I actually liked.

My earliest favorite bands are also an indicator of what kind of music is “there” if you’re a teenage guy who is interested in rock music, but isn’t really putting in any effort to find it. It’s mostly a lot of dudes playing guitar. So even though I never related much to traditional masculinity and had already developed a strong hatred for “bros,” listening to women never really entered the equation, because there was no representation of them except in pop or country music (which I wasn’t interested in).

Over the summer heading into my senior year, I finally started to get at least a little bored of listening to the same five bands over and over, so I started looking around online more and heard about Rilo Kiley. At the time, the band had just released their fifth album, Under the Blacklight, and were getting more of a mainstream push after signing with a major label. They appeared on the cover of Spin and were heralded as the next Fleetwood Mac. In retrospect, this is all funny, because Under the Blacklight would end up being the band’s last album, and unquestionably their worst. It’s pretty much the sound of a band that had run out of gas, and I remember not being particularly surprised when they quietly split up a couple years later.

That said, when I listened to Under the Blacklight back in 2007, it immediately grabbed me, just because it was so different from everything else I had heard. I really didn’t have friends and had gotten used to just not talking during the day and being alone with my own thoughts. The bands I listened to at the time all spoke in the same voice — a voice similar to the one always running in my head. Rilo Kiley offered a completely different perspective.

That came from frontwoman Jenny Lewis. While Rilo Kiley allegedly had other members, Lewis was the clear star, and their best songs were built around her bittersweet vocals and blunt, sometimes-personal lyrics that often touched on themes of sadness and depression. What made her really intriguing at the time was that she played off my ignorance about music and people in general: I was conditioned to expect music to sound a certain way, and I had preconceptions about how a woman singer would express herself. Lewis’ gift was her ability to subvert those expectations, by sounding sweet and looking pretty, but then writing lyrics that cut deep and were nowhere near what I expected. Their music was similarly subversive — it frequently had bright guitars and bouncy bass lines, sounding relatively poppy, which masked the dark subject matter.

Under the Blacklight lacked her more personal lyrics, instead focusing on third-person stories of the sleazy underbelly of L.A, which is part of why I feel the album was a bit of a dud.  It was only when I listened to the band’s other albums  — particularly The Execution of All Things and More Adventurous — that I really got hooked. The peak of my Rilo Kiley obsession was probably my first year at community college. I had a pretty bad attitude about going there (I felt I belonged at a “real” college despite my awful grades and lack of extracurriculars), so I continued to spend a lot of time by myself instead of meeting people. I would bring my 50 MB iPod shuffle that my dad got for free after signing up for a bank account or something and my junky $10 pair of headphones and would sit on benches or lawns on campus and just listen to their songs over and over and over.

I still wasn’t at the point where I was thinking all that deeply about music, but listening to Rilo Kiley is where certain ideas began to seep into my brain and a lot of my preconceptions were erased. The biggest realization was that music could be this way to get outside of my own thoughts. Instead of telling me what I wanted or felt like I needed to hear, I liked being challenged with a different perspective from a singer like Jenny Lewis. At the same time, I also realized that just because a singer seems very different from me, that doesn’t mean we don’t have similar experiences or feelings — some of Rilo Kiley’s songs about depression articulated how I felt much better than any songs I had heard up to that point.

When I look back on Rilo Kiley now, what also really stands out is how personality-driven the band was — at least to me, it was all about Lewis, and there was a feeling that through their music, I really got to know her and she became like a friend. Ever since then, I’ve tended to gravitate towards really individual, charismatic artists, who put a lot of themselves into the music they make. It’s part of why I got into music instead of movies or TV: I like how individual the medium is, that you can really know or understand someone through their songs. As someone who has never had a wide circle of friends and has consistently lagged behind socially, artists like Lewis have been important as a sort of form of social contact, and it’s why I prize them above those that lack that personality and honesty.

After my Rilo Kiley phase is when I really kicked my music exploration into overdrive, and soon the band was pretty much left in the dust. There was so much other music to discover that it was hard to justify listening to a band whose songs I’d already memorized. Lewis embarked on a solo career and made a record with Jonathan Rice, but none of it really grabbed me until last year’s The Voyager, in which Lewis, now in her late 30s, reflected on a life spent on the road, acting in movies as a child or performing in bands. It had a combination of toughness and vulnerability that reminded me of why I was so attached to her music years ago.

Listening to The Voyager, I couldn’t help but be a little nostalgic for the Rilo Kiley days, when everything was so new and exciting. It is kind of the ironic tragedy of someone who loves music: the more you listen to, the harder it is to truly love it, to feel the level of almost child-like attachment I did with Rilo Kiley. Though I’ve sometimes felt like I “moved on” from them, I really never did: their presence reverberates through almost all of the music I listen to now. They were the gateway through which I discovered that music could be so much more than I ever had thought it could be.

Tragic Cases of Domineering Bro Disease

An obsession with female singers comes with many frustrations. Primarily, someone who loves female vocals has a much smaller pool to draw from when trying to find new bands, just due to the sheer disparity in numbers compared to male vocalists. This is already annoying enough, but it doesn’t end there: many bands have talented women but will waste their singing skills in lieu of a lame, questionably talented generic indie rock bro.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve decided to refer to as “Domineering Bro Disease,” because I couldn’t think of a better name. As far as I can tell, it’s exclusively a male phenomenon, and it’s plagued bands for decades, frequently worsening their creative output in the process. The main symptom of the disease is the result of the fragile male ego. It infects a guy, often a songwriter who helped to create the band, who – because he is a guy and guys have to be in control of everything – feels that the world needs to hear his uninteresting voice interpreting the songs rather than a talented female singer.

This is obviously frustrating for me, because I’m on the record as finding female vocals inherently more interesting than most male vocals. But in some cases, particularly at the more underground level, it hurt the band as well. A great female vocalist is an easy way to get your band spotted and to instantly stand out from the crowd on the local scene. Unfortunately, far too many dudes who think they’re the next Jeff Mangum have destroyed their chances by insisting that they handle the microphone.

Some bands with both genders have been able to find the right balance — Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine come to mind. But too frequently, the domineering bro asserts himself too strongly (part of why I love all-female bands is that there’s no guys around to screw everything up). Here are some of the many bands that could have used a bit more equality (or in some cases, inequality). Hopefully future bands will learn from their mistakes and work together to find a cure for this horrible, debilitating disease.

Jefferson Airplane

Like most people, the two songs I was first familiar with from Jefferson Airplane were “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” each of which were written and sung by Grace Slick, one of the most charismatic women in early rock. Both of these songs are purposeful and combined the band’s psychedelic aesthetic into a unique pop package. Excited to hear more, I downloaded the 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow that both songs are found on, only to find that the entire rest of the album was just pointless noodling with listless male vocals.

To this day, Jefferson Airplane drives me insane, because Slick was so clearly the biggest draw for the band. Her two songs were the chart hits from the album and also are the ones that frequently appear on “best songs of all time” lists. At a time when female-fronted rock was in short supply, they had an opportunity to be something truly unique and memorable, but it was squandered because the dudes in the band couldn’t put the pieces together and were too stubborn to step aside and let her rock. Instead, we’re left with “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” and a bunch of forgettable songs that non-hippies don’t listen to anymore.

The Pixies

Rock history is littered with domineering bros, but perhaps none were more domineering with less justification than Pixies frontman Black Francis. He was an undeniably talented songwriter who wrote some extremely influential songs, but his yelpy vocals often straddled the fine line between experimental and annoying. Meanwhile, bassist Kim Deal was blessed with one of the finest voices in rock music, a sweet but sinister coo that played perfectly with their noisy instrumentation. She showcased it on “Gigantic” from 1988’s Surfer Rosa, but after that album was mostly relugated to sidekick or background roles while Black Francis took charge. Thankfully Deal escaped the wrath of Francis, leaving the band to form The Breeders, a band that is much better than the Pixies regardless of what anyone tries to tell you.

Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley was founded by two child-actors-turned-musicians, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, but it quickly became apparent to anyone with half a brain that Lewis was the star of the band. Her honest lyrics, sugary voice, and good looks quickly made her an indie darling. Despite that, Sennett doggedly inflicted his eighth-rate Elliott Smith voice on their audience, singing multiple songs on otherwise good albums like Take-Offs and Landings and The Execution of All Things. While Lewis’ songs were usually memorable and full of personality, Sennett’s invariably fell flat and quickly found their way onto my “instant skip” list.

In this case, it’s not that the male overshadowed the female, but that he felt the need to draw a shadow at all. Sennett was a fine guitarist who I’m sure was partially responsible for some of their best songs, but he should have been content to stand in the background playing guitar while riding Jenny’s coattails to stardom. Unsurprisingly, since the band broke up Lewis has had success as a solo artist and partnering with Jonathan Rice in Jenny and Johnny while Sennett now fronts the presumably crappy indie band The Elected.

Galaxie 500

Galaxie 500 made some of the most atmospheric and influential music of the late 80s and early 90s, using their love of The Velvet Underground to craft a slow-paced sound now known as “slowcore.” The band was fronted by guitarist Dean Wareham, who sang almost all of their songs. His nervous, jittery vocals suited the band’s songs about alienation and isolation quite well, but they still could have used more vocal turns by bassist Naomi Yang. The only two songs she sang over the band’s three albums were two of their best: On Fire‘s “Another Day” and This is our Music’s jawdropping cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling.”

Yang’s vocals suited the band’s hazy sound, and the band would have benefited from having another voice to mix up their songs a bit more. For a band that has occasionally been criticized for being too repetitive with their sound, Yang was an obvious answer that got overlooked.

The Dead Weather

A lot of the hype for supergroup The Dead Weather came from it being another Jack White side project. However, the band worked a lot better as a vehicle for The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, whose hellcat vocals finally got a chance to shine in a full-band atmosphere compared to the minimalism of her other group. The group’s best songs like “Gasoline” and “Hang You from the Heavens” are the ones where Mosshart leads the way, followed by the ones where both she and White play off of each other. The band’s worst songs are when White obligatorily takes the lead by himself. Mosshart’s vocals are passionate, full of attitude, and sound fresh while the overexposed White’s often sound like self-parody from his days with The White Stripes and usually just consist of him yelling attempts at catch phrases.