- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

Child actors don’t usually turn out as well as Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennet did. They become sad grotesques such as Gary Coleman or, worse, Alanis Morissette.

Miss Lewis and Mr. Sennet, who are no longer romantically involved but whose interaction as performers has the residue of intimacy, grew up to be singer-songwriters. They combine wits as Rilo Kiley, a Los Angeles indie-rock band that has a load of buzz at its back, and deservedly so. (The lineup also includes drummer Jason Boesel and bassist Pierre de Reeder.)

On its most recent album, “More Adventurous,” the first under a major-label distribution deal, Rilo Kiley proved it could find its way around a studio. During its concert Saturday at the 9:30 Club, the group proved it also knows its way around a stage.

From the supercharged political rant “It’s a Hit” to — a taut 90 minutes later — a ukulele-by-the-campfire rendition of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” Rilo Kiley was by turns mesmerizing and muscular.

The band has a lot of arrows in its quiver, starting with Miss Lewis, a baby-faced singer with a voice that outshined both her 5-foot frame and the trashy go-go outfit she wore Saturday night — sequined red top, black micromini and white knee-highs. When she sat down to play a Wurlitzer piano for the scintillating soul ballad “I Never,” you could hardly believe it was the same trash-talking vixen of the irresistible new-wavey rocker “Portions for Foxes.” (“Baby, I’m bad news, bad news, bad news,” Miss Lewis warned.)

Miss Lewis often sings cutely and torchily, thinly masking the cynicism and melancholy of songs such as “With Arms Outstretched” (“Don’t fool yourself in thinking you’re more than a man/’cause you’ll probably end up dead”) and “Love and War (11/11/46),” a song that manages, against long odds, to wring successful metaphors from the hoary love-is-a-battlefield analogy.

On the hypnotic “Pictures of Success,” Miss Lewis sang, “They say California is a recipe for a black hole” and proceeded to welcome the cosmological bad news with the incantation “I’m ready to go.”

Mr. Sennet doesn’t have a voice to equal Miss Lewis’, but he seems to be the architect of the band’s fidgety soundscapes, which toggle between raw punk energy and sunny pop precision, sometimes in the same song.

The singer-guitarist strapped on an acoustic guitar and took lead vocal for the almost-country “So Long” and the clap-along tune “Ripchord.” Throughout the 90-minute set, he played jam-band electric guitar harmonies with a never-introduced second guitarist, who also doubled as the band’s spot sampler for laptop-aided songs such as “Does He Love You?”

Rilo Kiley’s decision to associate itself with Warner Bros. raised eyebrows among purist-minded fans, but it looks to me like a mixed-economy sort of model that other indie bands may want to follow, if they get the chance.

When she’s not working with Rilo Kiley, Miss Lewis sings in the Postal Service collective, which includes Ben Hibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, another fave of the indie set that went major. Also forthcoming from Miss Lewis is a solo LP from the Saddle Creek stable, the Omaha, Neb.-based indie label and distribution company that released Rilo Kiley’s previous album, “The Execution of All Things.”

With feet in both worlds, Rilo Kiley is proof that major-label cash can broaden a band’s exposure without doing violence to its integrity.

Saturday night’s capacity crowd saw a band with undeniable commercial appeal and a self-directed artistic vision. Thirty years ago, that was the industry norm. Maybe it will be again.

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