Roots canals

The country excursion of Jenny Lewis, the Elected, and Neko Case
By MATT ASHARE  |  March 14, 2006

PLAYING IT STRAIGHT: On Rabbit Fur Coat, Jenny Lewis splits the difference between Rilo Kiley and Patsy Cline.Punk’s courtship of Americana has always been a natural one. Perhaps because Nashville hasn’t been open to genuine roots music since the pre-punk era, and because the ethos of punk has dovetailed with revved-up roots rock and country’s bygone outlaw legacy, finding room for roots in punk has never been a challenge. And the whole notion of Americana, with its own mythos and a catalogue of familiar sounds and styles, pays punk back by giving it legitimacy. This symbiotic relationship runs like a thread through much of even the earliest American punk, from the bluegrassy Meat Puppets to the eclectic Minutemen to the rockabilly-inflected X. It was inevitable that an alternative-era band like Uncle Tupelo would evolve to consummate the marriage under the banner of alt-country.

Indie rock, though, hasn’t always followed in punk’s footsteps. A couple more steps removed from the original rebellion, it’s been more about creating scenes than sounds. For much of the past decade and a half, loose indie collectives like Elephant Six have delved back into pre-punk archives, to the melodic tricks of the Brian Wilson Beach Boys, the psychedelic Beatles, and their contemporaries. Of course, strains of country music are woven as deeply into the fabric of indie’s wide-open æsthetic as anything else. But more often than not, the outlaw country music of the rebel is no longer the focus. Instead, Americana becomes just another set of stylistic motifs available to the songwriter, as well a valuable means of identifying oneself as an outsider artist. Think of it as the Palace syndrome: Will Oldham has made a career of playing the role of the untrained genius untainted by the urban devil of studio polish. You can even hear traces of that attitude in less obscure, more listener-friendly and commercially developed product like that of the female-fronted LA band Rilo Kiley, an indie foursome who’ve followed in the footsteps of one-time label mates Death Cab for Cutie, from their humble beginnings on the tiny Barsuk to a major-label deal with Warners, thanks in part to a little help from The OC.

The typical Rilo Kiley song — the kind you’d expect to hear in an OC episode — relies on Blake Sennett’s bright jangle-and-hum guitar hooks, a polite but sturdy backbeat, and the alluring vocals of the clean-voiced Jenny Lewis. Childhood demons are exorcized, twentysomething insecurities are revealed, and a certain salvation is offered in the form of an almost hypnotic melody that hints at something beautiful just over the horizon. An apparently doomed relationship (“You’re bad news . . . ”) turns out to be a good thing in “Portions for Foxes”; the cynicism of “It’s a Hit” resolves on an upbeat note when Lewis realizes, somewhat wryly, that she’s singing that hit. It’s pure power pop with barely a hint of twang until you reach the deeper cuts, where you’ll find Sennett deploying pedal-steel bends, or Lewis toying, against a spare acoustic backdrop, with what might be a melody pinched from an Appalachian ballad.

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