New Music Review: Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight

23 08 2007

by mr. travis

rilokileyblacklight.jpg

Artist: Rilo Kiley
Album: Under the Blacklight
Label: Warner
Release Date: August 21, 2007

For an indie band, the move to a major label is often a perilous endeavor. There’s the inevitable anger from a small percentage of their fan base (bringing to mind visions of the Simpson’s’ “Comic Book Guy” in their arguments against selling out), with the band worrying about appealing to the remaining members of their old indie fans, while attempting to win over new listeners. Suddenly, there’s pressure from the labels to make good on their investment through units sold, distribution, marketing, and everything else that comes with making it to the big time. In the meantime, a band often finds their recording budget greatly increased, allowing them to receive better production values and room for more experimentation, expanding whatever sound they already had. On their major label debut, Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley takes full advantage to the perks of recording under a “big four” recording budget, but unfortunately they tend to push their sound too far, giving the album a schizophrenic feel that ultimately takes them too far from where they began, causing the album to be an admirable yet uneven experience, leaving it as the least essential of their career.

The good news is that singer Jenny Lewis has never sounded better nor has she sounded more confident. Where earlier records had her sharing time with guitarist/co-vocalist/fellow child actor Blake Sennett, here she takes full command (except for the song, “Dreamworld”), her voice developed into something strong, sultry, yet still maintaining that playful quality that garnered her attention in the first place. The band, on the other hand, suffers from being pushed too far into the background. On earlier Rilo Kiley records, everything was brought to the front, allowing the vocals to sound even with the band’s interplay. Here, they’re pushed to the background with a strange mix that makes the instruments sound bland, a sad development considering that part of greatness of those previous albums was those little intricate details in the guitars or the drums that would add charm to their already great songs. None of those details make appearances here.

Conceptually, the album appears to be about sex and the trappings of fame (with sex) in Los Angeles (where they have sex, sometimes for money, or for fame, or just to have sex), all of which have been lyrical themes of Lewis and Rilo Kiley before. But, they have never been so blatant, as Lewis ups the vamp factor to overdrive, which is kind of surprising considering how coy and understated she could be when talking about sex in her earlier songs (even the sweet “The Frug” from their first E.P. had a dark side to it beneath the little girl vocals). It doesn’t necessarily tell a story as some concept albums do, but the general theme is prevalent on every song, especially the first single “The Moneymaker” (which needs to drive the point home that it’s about sex with a video about porn stars.)

Under the Blacklight begins with handclaps and a country twang on “Silver Lining,” with Lewis doing her best Aimee Mann impression with a song that wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on her solo album Rabbit Fur Coat. It’s a good start to the album, bridging the sounds between Rilo Kiley’s previous album More Adventurous and the Lewis solo album, containing one of the best lines on the record with Lewis stating matter of factly (and quite coldly) “I never felt so wicked as when I willed our love to die.” The follow up, “Close Call” is just as good, with a bouncy rhythm that sounds different from anything the band has done, with Lewis guiding them with strong vocals and even better wordplay (which happen to be about sex. And fame. And sex.)

Then comes “The Moneymaker,” a dirty little number that balances the line between disco breakdown and dirty porn beats. It’s a good song, but one that comes out of nowhere from the country tinged opening of the album, causing a bit of disorientation on the listeners part. Lyrically, it may be their weakest number, Lewis calling out “the moneymaker” over and over again doesn’t necessarily equate to Dylanesque prose, but it’s a good, if obvious first single. It does set an odd precedent for the rest of the record as it sets the band on a strange roller coaster through the middle of the album that while admirably experimental with their approach, ultimately leads to a disorientating listening experience.

First there’s the synth/disco beats of “Breakin’ Up” that comes across as a Gwen Stefani-lite number including an unsubtle dropped cell call metaphor for breaking up with a lover. Then comes the 80’s synth (like Tangerine Dream type synth) turned later 90’s Lilith Fair “Under the Blacklight,” followed by the duet with Blake Sennnett on “Dreamworld,” a sort of throwback to the Rilo Kiley of old. But, don’t get too comfortable because next up is “Dejalo” a cringe inducing Latin/Rap number that brought to mind visions of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” and Blondie’s “Rapture” (it also includes the worst line written by Rilo Kiley in “my mama is an atheist, if I stay out late, she don’t get pissed”). A Spin magazine interview with Lewis a couple of years ago said she was influenced greatly by hip hop, something that came across as tongue-in-cheek at the time, but now seems to possibly be right on (hey, look at white girl rap!). Of all the experimentalism of style and execution on the album, this is the only one that outright fails. Of course, don’t get too used to the Latin flavor, for the next song, “15” is straight out of Stax style soul, before segueing into Beatlesesque guitar pop with “Smoke Detector” (which, by the way is about sex).

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation on an album, especially for a band like Rilo Kiley who has been tinkering with their sound on each of their releases, but this is the first time that they have done too much tinkering, causing the album to sound extremely uneven in the middle section. In a lot of ways, this is the perfect album for the kids raised on mp3’s and ipods, a collection of songs that will work on any type of mix or amidst most genres, sounding right at home on a shuffled ipod between the Bee-Gees, Jay-Z and Shakira. But, as an album it doesn’t quite make the cut due to the lack of cohesiveness, making this an unfortunate disappointment. Rilo Kiley has the talent, they have the singer, they have the instrumentation, and now they have the budget, they just need a better producer to reign in their excessive tendencies.

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