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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Life and Accidntel Deth of Rilo Kiley

Did Rilo Kiley sell out?

That seems to be the question looming over the heads of every longtime Rilo Kiley fan out there this week. If you recall an editorial I wrote in June, I stated, "For me, an artist selling out means that they changed their sound, or who they are as a band for money, fame, or what have you." With this being my definition of a band selling out, it's time for me to examine the life and death of Rilo Kiley and answer the question that seems to be haunting us all.

Of course, when accusing a band of selling out on their most recent release, you have to be familiar with their back catalog. So this week I've been reacquainting myself with the Rilo Kiley of old, starting with Initial Friends and continuing through More Adventurous. As I was doing this, I literally felt saddened that this band that I've loved for years, will probably never be the same again.

Anyway, after listening through all of their albums multiple times, including Under the Blacklight, I've finally come up with an answer to that question. The answer is "yes." The following is my rationale as to why.


If you have the time, go back and listen to Rilo Kiley's albums in chronological order as I have done. What you'll notice is that each album sounds like the logical successor to album that preceded it. From Take Offs and Landings to The Execution of All Things to More Adventurous, each album sounds like the same band, only evolved, more focused, more polished than they sounded before.

Take Offs and Landings was a very raw piece of indie rock, flirting with country in the process. Listening to it, you can tell this is a band without a lot of mileage. They seem happy to be playing their instruments. There are numerous spots all over the album where Jenny misses a note or a guitar strum is a fraction of a second off, but they just leave it there because they're not trying to be perfect, just earnest. Jenny's lyrics don't always rhyme, but she delivers them with such conviction and passion that it doesn't even matter.

The Execution of All Things built upon the strengths of the first album and made the total package more polished. The band threw out most of the acoustic guitar driven country moments of their debut but built upon the more classic indie rock sounds of that album. Jenny's lyrics are still inventive and eccentric, but they rhyme more often than not and they are not delivered as brashly as they once were (with a few notable exceptions). More Adventurous again builds off of the momentum from Execution, the songs are even more polished, less country and more rockin'. Jenny Lewis' lyrics remain eccentric, but with more heart than ever. Songs like "Does He Love You?" or "I Never" show an artist who is not afraid to be vulnerable, one who has grown since the last time we heard from her.

Under the Blacklight shows no evolution in the band, but rather a devolution. The complex guitars of "The Absence of God" or "Portions for Foxes" are notably absent from the album. Listen to "The Moneymaker" and you'll hear what I mean. Perhaps worse is that for the first time in Rilo Kiley's history, guitars aren't driving the music, oftentimes taking a backseat to drums and synths. Of course, the big giveaway to the band's downward spiral is Jenny Lewis. Once a wordsmith beyond comparison, her lyrics are now mindnumbingly simplistic. Again, I cite "The Moneymaker" as a perfect example of this, but just look around elsewhere on the album as there's not really an example of Jenny's former lyrical prowess.

Practically, everything about Under the Blacklight screams "dumbed down," to the point where I can't pick out a single song on the album that is better or as good as any random song on any other of their albums. In a recent interview with Under the Radar, Blake Sennett is quoted as saying:
A lot of indie rockers come from a place where the premise of indie rock is deconstructing music and trying to do something not obvious or poppy. But as you go on in your career and make four or five records, you start running out of shit to deconstruct. So you start to say, 'What haven't I done? Well, what I haven't done is construct something satisfying.' That's a challenge in and of itself.
Personally, I can think of a million different types of directions that Rilo Kiley could've taken with their most recent album that would've been both satisfying and different. And for the record, since when was Rilo Kiley not obvious or poppy with their musical approach? They've always been one of the more accessible indie bands out there. That's why they're now with Warner Bros. Because people liked them.

Blake's explanation just reeks of bullshit. There is nothing challenging about making an album that's radio-friendly and poppy, especially when you're as talented of a band as Rilo Kiley. The fact of the matter is that their entire career, side-projects (Jenny Lewis and The Elected) included, the band as progressed in a clear-cut and certain direction. Under the Blacklight is not only a step away from that direction, but a complete reversal. Their music which was once earnest, sincere, and unique is now plastic, and utterly empty.

What musician makes music like this except for those who are only into making money? Name one pop act could be compared to the new Rilo Kiley that isn't in it for the money?

Also, let's not forget that Rilo Kiley is made up of not one, but two former child stars. Heck, Blake Sennett was on "Boy Meets World" and "Salute Your Shorts." Of course, after a while, you grow up and people stop paying attention to you. Who's to say that Blake and Jenny aren't just after the same fame and attention that has eluded them since puberty? I know, it's a long shot, but after hearing Under the Blacklight's desperate plea for attention and mainstream success, isn't it at least possible? You better believe it is.

Of course, the big test to see if Rilo Kiley sold out will be when The Elected releases their next album or when Jenny Lewis releases her second solo album. You'll know they sold out when they sound like their predecessors and nothing like Under the Blacklight. Granted, they're entirely different projects, but if Blake and Jenny are so tired of "deconstructing" music, then wouldn't these future albums be representative of that? I would imagine. If this does happen, it'll essentially mean that Rilo Kiley has turned into the moneymaker, while the side projects allow the artists to actually fulfill their musical desires and maintain their credibility.

Has my favorite band been reduced to a cash cow? Time will tell.

We can never know for sure if Rilo Kiley made the conscious effort to completely change their style for the sake of money or fame. However, another Blake Sennett definitely helps to clear things up. He says:

I personally, don't participate in music to get hipsters all stoked. That's not my scene. I do it because it's challenging and satisfying, and when that happens to be something that you think is more pop or appealing to a broader audience - ok, fair enough.
There's not a question in my mind as to whether Rilo Kiley has sold out, whether or not they've abandoned their long time fans and their musical integrity for the chance at the spotlight or a big house (in Coldwater Canyon). I don't throw the term around every time a band I like signs to a major label or creates something more accessible. In fact, I can't recall a time that I've used it before.

But Rilo Kiley has sold out.

Do you agree? Let me know by leaving a comment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This blog is pretty old but i just wanted to say i don't think they've sold out, its just an evolution and although it may be different sounding, the messages behind the music are still dealing with most of the same things. i mean who knows what they'll be like in five years, maybe they'll have an all folk or electronic LP...?