Sunday, September 02, 2007

153. Rilo Kiley: Under The Blacklight (2007)

Reviewers of Rilo Kiley's 5th-album-major-label-debut Under The Blacklight have exhausted their already dog-eared copies of the All Music Guide trying to come up with musical comparisons. Though often guilty of this strategy myself, I am not at all a fan of it.

I'm quoting myself here, from this blog, circa summer 2004:
"Just a glance through the latest issue of Spin reveals that the prevailing method of describing an artist is comparing them to another artist. You know: This songwriter has the lyrical dexterity of early Dylan combined with the gloomy soundscapes of the Cure, or that band takes the pomposity of Tattoo You-era Stones and adds the sensitivity of Dashboard Confessional. Or: It's like Trout Mask Replica as recorded by Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds.

At some point descriptions like that just make me glaze over, especially when I'm only vaguely familiar with the reference points themselves. But as I try to write about music myself, I find that making comparisons is the easiest way to give a reader and idea of what to expect. Writing about the actual instruments and feelings takes much more effort and thought."
So here goes a review of the stylistically diverse album, free of artist comparisons.

Who are Rilo Kiley? Former child stars turned indie rockers. Yes, though the band's sound has never been easy to describe. It was a little bit pop, a little bit low-fi, a little bit country, a little bit folk and not limited to any of that. After 2004's rockier, attention-getting More Adventurous, principal members Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis went and did their own thing. Jenny made a countrypolitian record with harmonizing twins from Kentucky, and Blake made a second album with his country rock band The Elected. So it wasn't out-of-line to expect some twang on their major label debut.

But Under The Blacklight defies expectations, even considering how hard-to-pin-down the band is in the first place. The band's style has not so much changed as it has simultaneously compartmentalized and expanded. Listening to the album is almost like listening to a mix CD, a really good one.

Style shifts are nothing new in pop music. We've seen them from David Bowie to Madonna, but usually it doesn't all happen in the same album!

The record opens with Silver Lining, a handclappy, funky, gospel tune that wouldn't have been out of place on Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat CD. In the lyrics, she sarcastically celebrates the end of a relationship: "Hooray, hooray, I'm your silver lining."

Close Call
uses an impressive vocal performance and echoey guitar to tell the first of a few sordid tales on the album. By all counts it's a warning against prostitution. That seems to be a bit of common sense to me, but whatever. It's even more baffling given its juxtaposition to The Moneymaker, a sexy, heavy, insinuating track with a brief-but-killer bridge.

Breakin' Up is a catchy disco tune with a high-pitched background vocals and a great opening line downplaying the end of a romance: "It's not as if New York city / Burnt down to the ground / The day you went away." It's followed by the title track, a pretty folk song that could make Lewis an instant hit on the melancholy coffeehouse circuit.

Dreamworld is Blake Sennett's requisite composing / singing spotlight and boy does he make the most of it. True to the title, this is an immaculate, dreamy pop song with ringing guitars and hushed vocals shared with Lewis. The two should sing together more often.

Dejalo sports a vaguely Caribbean beat mixed with an '80s pop bounce, as Jenny urges "dejalo, nuestra costa" which by most, but not all, accounts means "leave us alone, this is our thing" in Spanish. No matter the meaning, this is a song you can dance to!

That's followed by 15, another coulda-been-an-outake-from-Rabbit-Fur-Coat. Over soulful horns, Lewis tells a simile-rich tale of an underage romance. Smoke Detector keeps things lurid ("I took a man back to my room / I was smoking him in bed") albeit over a '60s dance-craze backdrop. Finally, the album closes with two pretty tunes, the straightforward country of The Angels Hung Around and the electronica-lite, drum-machine-driven Give A Little Love.

The sellout watchdogs have already decried Under The Blacklight for being purposefully commercial. They're always on the lookout for a cool (or formerly so) band who seems to be valuing success over artistic integrity. That criticism simply doesn't hold up here. For one, it's true these songs would sound good on the radio, but so would songs from hipster darlings like Arcade Fire and The Shins. Even given the variety of styles on the album, I refuse to believe this is Rilo Kiley's idea of what's popular.

On the contrary, Under The Blacklight is a tight, focused work by a talented band showing off their range, and doing it with style (even if it isn't necessarily their own).

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Under The Blacklight

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