This has been a stellar year for little-known artists to break out and reach much wider audiences. Gretchen Wilson threw a haymaker at gentrified country with "Redneck Woman" and stunned Nashville with her top-selling album "Here for the Party." Seattle indie rockers Modest Mouse, long toiling without mainstream recognition, cracked Billboard's Top 20 with their newest, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News." And Chicago producer and rapper Kanye West put the intellectual snap back into hip-hop with his brilliant and hugely successful debut, "The College Dropout."
Whether the chart gods will smile on the Los Angeles rock band Rilo Kiley remains to be seen, but it would be a fine thing if the group's wildly rewarding new CD, "More Adventurous," found a home in the collections of more than just in-the-know indie fans. The four-piece band's scope is too broad (it covers country, rock, folk, new wave and even torch territory), its talent too prodigious, to be cordoned off in such a small cranny.
More than anything though, it is Jenny Lewis's exquisitely sad and expressive voice that makes the band's intensely melodic and melancholic music feel like nothing less than the baring of a fascinating, heartbroken soul. With guitarist Blake Sennett, drummer Jason Boesel and bassist Pierre de Reeder, she has created not just songs but invitations to share experiences of 21st-century love and loss -- mostly loss. It is hard to listen to her sing "Does He Love You?" and not feel some discomfort or even despair:
Late at night, I get the phone
You're at the shop sobbin' all alone
Your confession is coming out
You only married him, you felt your time was running out
But now you love him, and your baby
At last you are complete
But he's distant and you found him on the phone pleading saying
"Baby I love you and I'll leave her and I'm comin' out to California."
To hear Rilo Kiley's songs is to watch scenes unfold, and it is that cinematic element that makes you a participant in their begging and questioning, cursing and crying. And sad isn't all that the band does well. On harder-rocking tracks, such as "Love and War," which sounds like a long-lost Pretenders song, and "Portions for Foxes," Lewis's voice can move from rage to regret to resolve in a single line. "There's blood in my mouth 'cause I've been biting my tongue all week," she blithely sings on the latter and yet it sounds like the fiercest kind of indictment. Later, her '60s soul turn on the daydreamy "I Never" is a thing of soaring beauty.
All of that said, it would probably take a miracle for this CD to chart. "It's a Hit" is the loping, ironic opening track on "More Adventurous." A bitter condemnation of politicians, egomaniacs, hypocrites, even songwriters, it's an unlikely candidate for radio play. With Lewis's dry delivery, it doesn't sound too optimistic:
Gotta write a hit.
I think this is it.
It's a hit.
And if it's not,
then it's a holiday for hanging.
Yeah shoo-bop-shoo-bop my baby.
But maybe the breakthroughs of Modest Mouse, Wilson and West signal a welcome change in tastes. Maybe music buyers are becoming more adventurous. Maybe "It's a Hit" will be one.