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February 13, 2004

Rilo Kiley in concert: unplugged, but still weird

Oh, how misleading the word "acoustic" can be. Technically, the term implies only the use of non-electric instruments; nonetheless, it is usually assumed to carry connotations of "quiet." Rilo Kiley's "acoustic" set at the Abbey this past week, however, was anything but quiet. The show started out innocuously enough with a decidedly subdued set from Jake Bellows of up-and-comers Neva Dinova. Bellows played the type of melancholic folk-based rock that should be quite familiar to anyone who listens to music from Omaha. While he had a little bit of trouble keeping the audience's attention, his set contained a few terrifically written songs that hinted at a far greater talent.

And then, all of a sudden, things got a lot less quiet. Tilly and the Wall, the next big thing out of Omaha, have a lot going for them: a demo recorded in Conor Oberst's basement and mixed by A.J. Mogis, a bunch of songs purportedly about "secrets and kissing," and a tap dancer in lieu of a drummer. These, however, are not their most valuable assets. Rather, it's their seemingly boundless energy and their winning stage presence that's been helping spread the word (but to be honest, the tap dancing girl doesn't hurt a bit). Most of their set—consisting of sing-along pop ditties with refrains like "I wanna fuck it up!"—did a good enough job of setting feet tapping, but it wasn't until their fantastic cover of "Hey Ya!" that the room really exploded. Now I understand that this is, essentially, the most covered song ever. I also understand that it's so cliché for indie rock bands to cover top 40 songs. But I'll be damned if they didn't play the hell out of that thing and shamelessly steal the show in the process.

By the time Rilo Kiley took the stage, any hopes of a traditional "acoustic" show had already been dashed. As such, the energy level was kept relatively high for most of their set. The lineup this time consisted only of vocalist/guitarist Jenny Lewis and lead guitarist Blake Sennett, who traded off between electric and acoustic guitars throughout the course of the show.

The set itself mainly consisted of a number of covers (including Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" and a terrific cover of Bowie's "Rock and Roll Suicide") as well as new material from their forthcoming LP. Out of the new batch of songs, only "Somebody Else's Clothes" (which was co-penned by Jimmy Tamborello and may appear on the new Dntel record) sounds like standard Rilo Kiley fare. Most of the new material represented a major departure for the band, although it remains to be seen whether these stylistic changes will pay off.

"It Just Is" was a genuine ballad, featuring a somber keyboard line and the type of guitar line that I imagine Kevin and Winnie danced to on at least one episode of The Wonder Years. They followed this uncharacteristic move with "I Never," which Jenny performed solo with only a keyboard. The backbone of this song was, again, simple minor chords—only this time, Jenny did her best to sing soulfully as she boldly belted out the opening lines "I'm only a woman/ of flesh and bone." In stark contrast, other new songs such as "Bulletproof" and "Absence of God" found the band moving more towards folk; both songs featured complex guitar lines and some masterful fingerpicking on Sennet's behalf. In an interesting twist, the set closed with a rendition of "Spectacular Views," the band's strongest song, only sung by Blake rather than Jenny.

Perhaps the only thing keeping Rilo Kiley from being a truly great band is their inability to figure out exactly what type of band they are. While 2002's The Execution of All Things was undoubtedly a solid record, it found the band refusing to adhere to any one style of music, jumping from programmed beats to stripped-down folk to bouncy indie pop. While the band arguably does all of these things well, it produced a record that was extremely varied but ultimately unfocused. If these new batch of songs are any indication, their new record promises to continue in this vein while juxtaposing even more disparate styles. The sad part is that Rilo Kiley could produce an amazing record if they would focus on just one of their strengths—be it pop or folk—but in their quest to be a jack-of-all-trades, they will most likely never produce that definitive album.