Ashes to Ashes: Rilo Kiley and The Civil Wars Bid Adieu

Goodbyes are never easy, which is why I avoid them at all costs.  I have always preferred whenever parting ways for an extended period of time to say, “See you later”. It creates an obligation to return.  On occasion, though things do come to an end, like a band’s time together.  Whether they are big messy break ups (i.e., every Fleetwood Mac break up) or subtle, quiet retirements (i.e., R.E.M.), a period of musical mourning and reminiscing ensues.   However, the best part of these endings is they rarely are an end, full-stop.  We will always have the music and the memories.  (Usually there aren’t too many awkward memories or angst associated with them like relationships.  And, this is why I’ve decided that music is my ideal life partner.)

The past week I’ve been consumed by two records that are bookends to two different, yet not totally disparate careers.  On the surface, Rilo Kiley and The Civil Wars share little similarities other than they’ve released records in 2013 that either are their or could be their “last”; the former confirmed, the latter speculation.   Yet, upon closer inspection they share some commonalities.  Both groups were composed of essentially a pair of strong songwriters of the opposite sex and, yet, it was often the female vocalist who took center stage in the public sphere and image of the band.  For Rilo Kiley, this probably has a lot to do with the fact that Jenny Lewis sang most of the songs and had a rather illustrious childhood acting career (e.g. The Wizard and Troop Beverly Hills) that was part of many of our childhoods.  Oh yeah and she has a stunning voice that shifts from girl next door cute to angst-y rebel yell to blue-eyed Memphis soul.  With a range like that, what’s not love?  In the case of The Civil Wars, Joy Williams didn’t necessarily dig into the punk aesthetic but she certainly saunters through earthy Blues, gritty Country and angelic Gospel with the greatest of ease.  Another interesting thing of note, neither band emerged from the coasts (even though having connections to them) but rather from the sleepy center of the country.  Okay, Nashville isn’t so sleepy but before Conor Oberst and Saddle Creek Records, you wouldn’t think Omaha was a place for bands to “make it.”

rilo-kiley-rkives-cover-art-1369147307Rilo Kiley will always be rooted in my college days.  They will always remind me of hope and whimsy, of long road trips, shedding youthful, adolescent ways, making difficult life decisions, and then dancing with abandon all at once.  As a good friend recently said, whenever I hear Jenny’s voice I’m taken back to Providence (our shared collegiate home).  On rkives, a collection of b-sides, outtakes, demos, and songs left off (the tracks), you hear their entire career packed into one neat little window of what was and what wasn’t.  Starting with the gentle strum of “Let Me Back In”, which beautiful juxtaposes Jenny’s dreamy vocals against what sounds like an island-like ukulele, rkives crafts together the world out of time mixed with raucous energetic indie rock quirkiness that made Rilo Kiley our college sweethearts.  How songs like “Runnin’ Around” and “Emotional” didn’t make it on to previous albums is beyond me because they are the sort of tracks that seemed perfectly RK. But perhaps this is a testament to what an excellent spell of songwriting these guys had from Execution of All Things through More Adventurous.  The tracks I can’t stop replaying though are the playful “I Remember You” and the comical closer “The Frug.”  On the former, Jenny shows why she might be the best at filling a duet with the requisite tension and passion; she certainly illustrated that excellently on stage across from Ben Gibbard during their rendition of “Nothing Better” on the Postal Service’s recent tour (#swoon).   And, how can you ask for a better closer to the trip down memory lane then a quirky and comical song about dancing as metaphor for the inability to commit?  Just remember, Jenny can do the Robo-Cop but she cannot do the Smurf.

Take on last trip with Rilo Kiley on rkives.

the-civil-wars-album-630x630The Civil Wars entered the scene a couple of years ago; with songs overflowing in bittersweet passion and pristine melodies.  They captured the hearts and ears of those who relish fine craftsmanship and Americana Roots “Rock’ (a blend of country, bluegrass, blues, and blue-eyed soul).  Building off the tension filled duets between Joy Williams and John Paul White, you wanted to believe these two were lovers acting out their life drama through these songs; only this could make them even more powerful.  Well, they aren’t partners other than in song and writing and perhaps not any more.  The current news is that the band is on indefinite hiatus.  On the track’s first single and opening track, “The One That Got Away”, there is a bigger, fuller and more rock almost, anthemic sound, which makes you wonder where could they go if the road continued.  (It recalls to the opening of REM’s Automatic for the People, “Drive”, an under appreciated track from the finest arc of the band’s career.)  As befits their name, the record is filled with songs of distance and discord as theme not necessarily biography.  Yet a midst all the emotional chaos there is always the return to these perfect harmonies that fill you with a feeling of hope and possibility.  Listen to the ebb and flow of “Eavesdrop”, which relishes in the tumult.  However, the heart and center of this record for me is “Dust to Dust”, the most sparse and simple track.  It showcases John Paul and Joy’s gorgeous back-and-forth vocals along with the love-letter like quality of their songwriting.  But there is another layer… There is this ghostly quality to John Paul’s voice as though he is not there and Joy’s earthly vocals feel like a life longing for something that will never again come or be.  If this is the last act, it is a thing of utter beauty.

Sojourn and swoon with The Civil Wars.

see you later,


* all mistakes, grammatical or otherwise, are purely intentional except when they are not.

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