Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

Rilo Kiley at the Marquee 16/3/05

I normally hate all seated gigs, but a chair would have been a great relief at this one. I haven’t been kept waiting for a band this long since the days of the Cambridge Boat Race, where, lovely venue thought it was, they frequently spent three times as much time setting up as the band spent on stage. It was 10pm by the time they finally appeared, and thoughts of missing the last train home did begin to enter my mind around this time.

This was all made much worse by the cloyingly earnest performance from support act Marc Carroll. He is the kind of ‘artist’ that makes the term ‘singer-songwriter’ sound horribly offensive. Every line was hammed-up and overwrought, every chord strummed with an unpleasant and grating faux intensity. This quite literally heavy-handed strumming style was so relentless and uniform that it made the numerous guitar changes seem like mere window dressing. Unfortunately, you can't polish a turd. That being said, ‘Crash Pad Number’ was at least a pleasant slice of Byrdsian jangle pop, even if it did bear more than a passing resemblance to ‘Manic Monday’ (Prince wrote that y’know, a piece of pop trivia considerably more interesting than anything Carroll’s career will ever result in).

Rilo Kiley’s performance has drawn some harsh criticism from some quarters, not least from John Kell, who has declared Rilo Kiley to be MOR. I sort of see where he is coming from – they are more glossy and less lyrically substantial than many of the glowing reviews of their albums have accounted for, and there was an unexpected emphasis on fuzzy dual guitar solos in a vaguely 70s FM radio rock style. Yet, ‘MOR’ has always struck me as an overused and somewhat unhelpful term and, to these ears at least, there was little that was Middle of the Road about this performance. It was technically impressive, with some striking slide guitar flourishes, and surprising levels of rhythmic inventiveness where so many alt. Country combos are merely functional. At times, the dazzling musicianship was thrilling and the intricate arrangements always fascinating. I'm slightly wary of simply dismissing quality musicianship as MOR, and Rilo Kiley are most certainly not Keane. If we’re going to use one of those annoying critical terms (and be frustratingly pedantic at the same time), we might better dub Rilo Kiley AOR. They are perfectly pitched at the Word Magazine readership (Word promoted tonight’s show) and are most likely to appeal to mature, middle-aged, reasonably conservative listeners, rather than some of the surprising number of indie kids in the audience. Not only this, but they also bolster their sound a little for live performance, frequently emphasising the rock element to their sound as much as the country. Occasionally this spills into self-indulgence, as the biting ‘Does He Love You?’ disintegrates into a rather aimless jam session.

Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett make for a slightly unusual pairing at the front – he looks like your typical indie fop, and she could easily be the queen of a beauty pageant. Her voice lacks rough edges, but is engaging, and her phrasing is crisp. She is let down tonight by a slightly problematic sound mix, which swamps her understated delivery beneath the wall of guitars. Still, ‘Portions For Foxes’ is more energetic than on record, and ‘I Never’ sounds suitably sultry. Best of all was a brand new song, which had a slightly unconventional melody, and demonstrated that this band are still expanding their reach.

The Arcade Fire gig earlier this month ended with a spectacular set-piece bringing band and audience closer together, and Rilo Kiley conclude proceedings with a similarly good natured flourish. They invite Word’s Andrew Harrison and members of the audience to invade the stage for a singalong finale of ‘With Arms Outstretched’ (from ‘The Execution of All Things’), one of their sweetest songs and, as it turns out, clearly a fan favourite. It left me feeling somewhat warm and sentimental.

Whilst this music will certainly not change the world, I very much enjoyed this set, and it marked Rilo Kiley out as genuinely worthy songwriters, rather than the mere pretentions at worthiness that characterise the likes of Damien Dempsey or indeed Marc Carroll. I concede that they will need to be braver with future releases (I suspect that, despite the assumptions of its title, 'More Adventurous' is probably neither more nor less adventurous than its immediate predecessor). The one new song here hinted that this might be a realistic possibility - let's hope so.

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