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Sex and The Circus

Rilo Kiley, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, Rams Head Live, June 7

Jefferson Jackson Steele
NO ONE'S PIN-UP: Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley baits and switches.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/11/2008

Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley's lead singer, took a calculated risk by appearing at Rams Head Live last Saturday night in a one-piece bathing suit, black with red flowers, her long legs in lime-green tights and her long red hair in a black headband. The risk was that by dressing up like a circus aerialist she might appear frivolous, cynical, or the kind of object of desire that she has written about so often. She was calculating, however, that the strengths of her big soprano, her glorious chorus hooks, and her savvy band would translate the rich ironies of her lyrics to her costume. It was a gamble that she won again and again.

The quartet, supplemented by ex-Azure Ray multi-instrumentalist Orenda Fink, began its set with the chiming guitar hook of "Close Call," an irresistible pop song about prostitution. Lewis' trilling vocals and the jangling guitar harmonies suggested the clarion call of carnality, but the lyrics warned, "Funny thing about money for sex, you might get rich but you die by it." It was as if you had been lured in by the ear candy and scanty costume in expectation of meeting Madonna or Stevie Nicks only to be confronted by Chrissie Hynde or Corin Tucker. It was a bait-and-switch strategy that Rilo Kiley employed brilliantly all night.

The approach worked on "15," the song of an underage girl "bruised like a cherry, ripe as a peach." Fink played the R&B trumpet, Blake Sennett added a guitar solo, and Lewis' seductive soprano made her protagonist's ripeness as palpable as her bruises. The approach also worked on "Does He Love You?," a ballad that resembled the girl-group hits by the Angels and Shangri-Las, until you realized that these weren't two high-school girls talking but rather a pregnant wife and her husband's mistress. And the approach worked on "Silver Lining," a breakup song that had Lewis exulting that she never felt better than when she left a lover behind. As the song began, the band's crew tossed out three giant balloons that bounced about before bursting like a love affair and showering the crowd with silver confetti.

Before Rilo Kiley began, Sennett came out and introduced an act that hadn't been advertised, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. "We've been working on a new record," Welch said. "And we wanted to try out some new songs, so we asked the Rilo Kileys if we could come to their show." The unaccompanied duo showcased six new compositions that harked back to the deep hillbilly roots of their earliest work--tunes that could have been sung by the Carter Family but for a few modern references. But when Welch sang "It's So Easy to Feel Good," the skinny singer in the thrift-shop blouse and denim skirt appeared as torn as Lewis between the allure and dangers of sex.

With their steady thump and yelping vocals, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down sounded like just another indie-rock band mid-set. But the more the Northern Virginia trio played, the more obvious it was that singer Thao Nguyen has a jazz background--from the odd chords she played on her archtop Gibson guitar to the swing rhythms she insinuated into her songs. That unlikely combo of alt-rock and jazz was tied together by catchy pop melodies, especially on "Bag of Hammers." As Nguyen started bouncing and whipping around her long dark hair, the trio became too distinctive to ever be mistaken for "just another" anything again.

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