Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous Sunday, Feb 10 2008 

I fell for Rilo Kiley when I heard More Adventurous – a record that comprising a wonderful mix of musical styles, lyrical subjects and emotional tones; by turns dramatic, passionate, musing, amused. It isn’t perfect, but just about everything is catchy, aesthetically gorgeous, tuneful, richly and carefully detailed, and lyrically interesting, so that it gets even better with repeat listens. I dropped it for a while and recently returned fairly obsessively to it, amidst renewed appreciation for Rilo Kiley’s newest album Under the Blacklight… but that’s another blog entry for another day.

Lead guitarist Blake Sennett is due tremendous credit for the lovely guitar-playing – including all sorts of beautiful effects, whether crunching electric riffs, folkish acoustic, shimmering picking, legato phrases, layered lead lines, rhythmic plucking, harpsichord-like tinkling. Then there is Jason Boesel’s light, intuitively agile, warm and superbly detailed drumming. And of course, Jenny Lewis’ remarkable voice: a clean, bright, warm mezzo-soprano, capable of shading from sweet to ferocious; delicate to strong; spare to full-blown and back again… But the main strength of More Adventurous is the amazing songwriting.

I was rather surprised to recognise ‘I Never’ – which I’d first encountered in the film Must Love Dogs – since I’d never (haha) knowingly heard Rilo Kiley before. It was used quite appropriately in the film: Diane Lane’s character haplessly falls for a charming cad to Jenny Lewis’s confession that ‘I’m only a woman/ Of flesh and bone’. (Yes, I’ve watched this film quite a few times – it’s got John Cusack in it.) This is a seemingly straightforward soul number, complete with big voice, organ chords, strings and even a male chorus going ‘ah-ooh’; but with structural and lyrical tricks. Jenny declares – no less than 50 times – that

I never … loved somebody

The way that I loved you.

And what a triumphant declaration it is, followed as it is by a dramatic coda of electric riffs that sweep you along to the song’s conclusion.

‘Does He Love You?’ was the next song to strike me: an indelible, emotionally-wrought adultery song, with a musical and lyrical narrative twist of the knife at the end. Lewis’ envy of her friend’s perfect marriage suddenly becomes entirely too personal:

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’

Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend

I am flawed if I’m not free

And your husband will never leave you

He will never leave you for me

In quite a different vein is ‘Portions for Foxes’, where Lewis sweetly and blithely admits ‘Baby, I’m bad news/I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news’. The song is a veritable showcase for various guitar tricks. Swirling bell-like notes alternate with drum-led crunching chords, mandolin-like vibrato, percussive plucking, and pulsing legato harmonies… The lyrics are solidly pessimistic, but are sung with an endearing air of cheerful unrepentance:

I know I’m alone if I’m with or without you

But just being around you offers me another form of relief

When the loneliness leads to bad dreams

And the bad dreams lead me to calling you

And I call you and say… ‘C’mere!’

‘It’s a Hit’ was Robert Christgau’s Song of the Year for 2004. Not hard to see why: it is smart, verbose, reflective, political, philosophical, and… funny. To a catchy tune and cheery instrumental accompaniments (including Christmas-time type jingling bells), Lewis observes wryly that

Any chimp can play human for a day

Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform

And run for office on election day

Fancy himself a real decision maker

And deploy more troops than salt in a shaker

But it’s a jungle when war is made

And you’ll panic and throw your own shit at the enemy

The camera pulls back to reveal your true identity

Look, it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing

A smoking gun-holding ape

[…]

Any fool can play executioner for a day

And say with fingers pointed in both directions ‘He went that-away’

It’s only a switch or syringe, ah-huh

Exempt from eternal sins

But you still wear a cross

And you think you’re gonna get in

Ah, but the pardons never come from upstairs

They’re always a moment too late

But it’s entertainment, keep the crowd on their toes

It’s justice, we’re safe

It’s not a hit, it’s a holiday

Shoo-bop shoo-bop, my baby

The title tune describes one girl’s breathtakingly total and complete submission to love, set to a sweet country melody, with beautifully tuneful steel guitar and harmonica. Would that we were all as brave and articulate and witty.

I read, with every broken heart

We should become more adventurous

And if you banish me from your profits

And if I get banished from the kingdom up above

I’d sacrifice money and heaven all for love

Let me be loved, let me be loved

[…]

And maybe ours is the cause of all mankind:

Get loved, make more, try to stay alive.

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Say Anything… Friday, Nov 24 2006 

I’ve been putting off writing about Say Anything…, because it’s tough to describe the film experience that set off a slow explosion (oxymoron be damned) of sorts. (Yes, the ellipsis is part of the title.) I’d decided to watch the film on a whim, largely because of the high rating on its IMDB page. (I don’t rely slavishly on the ratings – lots of films I love have not been similarly loved by IMDB users, and vice versa. But it is probably worthwhile checking something out when lots of people think that it’s good. And I found out subsequently that Roger Ebert – a film critic I respect enormously simply because his opinion is always a considered one, though I do disagree with him on occasion – considered Say Anything… a Great Movie.) Funny how such a casual decision led, gradually, to discoveries substantial enough to change my life. For the better. Not a lot, but enough.

Reaction on first viewing of Say Anything…: ‘Yeah, it’s pretty good’. Could not get more specific than that, which is unusual. I generally find it easy to size up most films after one viewing, so when I can’t articulate much more than ‘this is good’, then repeat viewings are in order, for me to fully appreciate the thing.

Reactions from many, many viewings: Amazingly nuanced story-telling and characters. Realistic dialogue realistically delivered, with a surprising number of memorable lines. Endlessly amusing, packed with jokes of all kinds; but the humour is gentle and empathetic. Life-affirming in subtle but important ways, right down to the ending. And, most salient for the purpose of my anecdote, with staggering acting by John Cusack. I supposed that his personality had to be exactly like Lloyd Dobler’s in real life – so gut level-convincing was his performance as Lloyd – that it came as quite a shock to watch Mr. Cusack coming across just as real when playing Walter Gibson, a vastly different character, in The Sure Thing.

John Cusack was one of those actors I’d never really heard of, and not just because he didn’t usually take on blockbusters. In fact, I had seen him in action (no pun intended) in the one blockbuster he’s done, Con Air, but ironically didn’t even remember that he was in it despite him having a substantial role. Say Anything… was a revelation, because it introduced me to some of the most realistic, intelligent, emotionally sophisticated acting I’d ever seen. Suffice it to say I became a real admirer, and set about watching a whole lot of films in his back catalogue. Along the way I started finding him extremely interesting as a person as well, insofar as it is possible to know what an actor is like in real life. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, Say Anything… led to John Cusack, who led me to a whole lot of his films including Grosse Pointe Blank, the watching of which triggered my first real interest in popular music. Voila. (Incidentally I am very fond of the Replacements song used in Say Anything…, ‘Within Your Reach’, which Mr. Cusack has described as being completely apposite as a soundtrack to his own teenage years.)

Anyway. I was only six years old when Say Anything… came out in theatres in 1989, which meant that I missed it along with all the other ‘80s teen films. Comparisons are odious and all that, but it’s hard not to feel that Say Anything was in a league of its own in this genre, even including the really famous John Hughes/Brat Pack ones, those that I have watched. Though the label ‘teen film’ is a mischaracterisation in this case and doesn’t do Say Anything… justice: I’m pretty sure adults would get just as much, if not more, enjoyment out of the film, and romance, while a part of the story, isn’t the be-all and end-all.

It is almost impossible to summarise the plot of Say Anything… without making it sound, yup, like a teen film, so I shan’t try, especially since I don’t pretend to be writing a review. Besides, the plot really isn’t the point. Acting-wise, Mr. Cusack aside, John Mahoney and Ione Skye deliver similarly strong performances as the other two main characters, and even those in bit parts are memorable. But a whole lot of credit must go to the brilliantly incisive and funny yet economical script, written by Cameron Crowe (he of Almost Famous fame), and unobtrusive yet sympathetic direction, done by the same, all the more remarkable for the fact that he was directing for the first time. (It must be tough to have somehow produced a master-work on your first outing: it’d be hanging over your head for the rest of your career.)

Till today, Say Anything… remains one of my favourite John Cusack films, and I’ve watched quite a lot of them. It’s right up there with High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank. What is more, it is one of my favourite films, period.