Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett were introduced to each other in the early 90's, both of them former child actors who hadn't been doing much of any note for a number of years. Lewis has most notably been the girl in "The Wizard", a children's film created by Nintendo (much Mario ensued), whilst Sennett had been marginally more successful, appearing as a regular in a few American TV shows such as Salute Your Shorts, which of course - nobody's ever heard of. Americans, eh? After forgetting about each other, they re-established a friendship in 1999, and, through their collective love of country musicians such as Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac, formed a band with Pierre De Reeder, a childhood friend of Sennett, and Dave Rock, who played drums. Take Off and Landings was born. At this time Jenny and Blake were in a relationship and living together, and everything was sunny.
The album itself reflects this, being systematically shaped by country and folk music, while at the same time casting over a shimmering net of Californian melody. Howevere, deep beneath the music are the lyrics, which simmer over with alarming thoughts and reflect the seedier side of American life. It's a seam they would go on to explore in great depth for their second album, but Take Off and Landings sees a band just as they're starting out, experimental and eager to impress.
The album starts with a twee folkie piece, "Go Ahead", which is as innocent-sounding as it is deeply two-faced. It sounds like a girlfriend trying to encourage her boyfriend to do great things, when in fact... darker things are going on. It's more of a curio than an indication of what to expect from the rest of the record, but it's always a welcome song to listen to when the sun isn't quite out, the clouds aren't quite covered, when things aren't quite good nor bad.
However, it's not until the guitar loops and gentle riffs of songs such as "Science Vs Romance", "Wires and Waves" and "Plane Crash in C" that we see the real Rilo Kiley, who are content to sit back and stay in a chilled-out country mode. All three songs, which are arguably the main body of the record, are reasonably laid-back, although on each the songs gradually grow in darkness until they twist into nastiness. Wires and Waves is the most upbeat, featuring a spikey guitar line and some jumpy vocal moves from Jenny, although Science Vs Romance is the best of the three. With intricate drumming and guitar hookups, it also features a nicely noodling guitar solo halfway through. Meanwhile Plane Crash in C suffers from a miscalculation in singing style, being too forceful for it's own mildness. Yes, I just referenced David Lloyd George. Weren't expecting that, were you? One interesting note is that the synths on Plane Crash... are courtesy of Alex Greenwald, he of Phantom Planet/Mark Ronson fame.
On this album there are a number of musical explorations. Nothing akin to, say, Radiohead, but tracks like Bulletproof, a heartbreaking request to a boyfriend to let a relationship die, or the Elliott Smith-apeing "Small Figures in a Vast Expanse", provide neat counterpoints to the guitar-and-drum combos of the other songs. Likewise, there are two short moments of Wurlitzer organ, both of which are titled "Variations On A Theme", although these both suck so we'll disregard them. All these songs are nice, the "mainstream" sounds and the slightly left-field stuff, but it's only on a few tracks that the band actual show flashes of greatness.
Pictures of Success not only manages to be one of the most ambitious songs the band ever attempted (even now, it's the longest song they've ever been involved with), but it's also their greatest. It's actually my favourite song, personally, of all time, I think. Beginning with a deliberate and forboding guitar riff from Jenny, before Blake and Pierre join in with their parts, which are delicate are careful. The song is split into three parts, and the first sounds naïve and simple, with semi-whispered words of restraint from Jenny "I could learn world trade/or try to map the ocean...?" Little whirrs of electronica jump across, but trail away. The song then winds down after a few verses, into a mantra-like state, which grows and grows. Jenny sings "I'm ready to go", inflecting it differently each time she does, and growing in strength every time. The guitars crash out and the drums start bashing, and the rest of the band joins her in singing the mantra. Everything builds up and builds up, before collapsing into the original guitar riff from the beginning, before Jenny sings the last few lines of the song. At the end, the guitar slows down, as a clock starts ticking.
I don't know what it's about, but it's bloody involving.
Elsewhere, "Always" provides an unlikely rock moment, with keyboards and a rampaging drum line, which ends in Jenny singing sweetly "I should've known, with a boy like you your middle name is always be/I always loved you", hiding her hatred for an ex behind the rest of the band's music. It's made stronger by the sequencing, because the song before, "Don't Deconstruct", is the sweetest on the album, reminiscent of Gary Lightbody's Reindeer Section in it's low-fi appeal. Only a trumpet and light percussion can be heard, and Jenny sings the melody as well as the words, a lyrically intriguing plea to a friend to fight through their hard times.
Blake and Jenny share singing duties, although Jenny is by far the better singer. Blake sounds a little like Elliott Smith, with a very quiet, shy voice, while Jenny's also seems subdued, but she manages to nail the emotional identity of each song, and match it with her voice. I can't say enough about how much I love Jenny Lewis' voice, she's country and poppy, but she has a grit and determination that marks her away from, say, Norah Jones. Blake, on the other hand, sings in a disconnect to his songs, which sometimes works (on the superb "August", a soaring piece that would almost certainly be the highlight of the album If Pictures of Success hadn't already taken that crown), but can sound a little druggy. At the end, he has two songs, "Rest of My Life", which is a lovely little love song, and "Salute My Shorts" (see what he's done there?) that doesn't work at all.
In the end, it's the overall sound of the record which appeals, as opposed to the tracks on their own. There is much to like, including Pictures of Success, August, Wires and Waves and "We'll Never Sleep (God Knows We'll Try)", which has a hypnotic beauty to it, but a lot of the songs don't leave enough of an impression to truly be counted as great songs. Their debut album, it promised many great things were to come....
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Go Ahead
2 Science Vs Romance
3 Wires And Waves
4 Pictures Of Success
6 Bullet Proof
7 Plane Crash In C
8 Science Vs Romance
9 Small Figure In A Vast Expanse
10 Don't Deconstruct
12 We'll Never Sleep (God Knows We'll Try)
13 Rest Of My Life
14 Plane Crash In C