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Monday, August 20, 2007

Rilo Kiley: "Under the Blacklight"

Three years.

Three years ago, I walked out of my local record store with a brand new CD in my hands. Having been a fan of Rilo Kiley's first two albums for a while, I knew that I had no choice but to buy "More Adventurous" and support one of my favorite bands. I was instantly captivated by the more polished sound that the band presented on that album. Songs like "Does He Love You?" and "More Adventurous" have become all-time favorites for me. To say the very least, it was an impressive album. It has been three years, and like most Rilo Kiley fans, I have been eagerly anticipating the return of Rilo Kiley. At last, it's finally come with "Under the Blacklight," an album in which Rilo Kiley tries to expand their sound further into the pop realm.

The album begins on a high note, with the beautifully crafted "Silver Lining." More than any other song on "Under the Blacklight," this one captures the essence of classic Rilo Kiley. There is a catchy hook, a little bit of country flare, and everybody in the band seems to blend well with one another. There is no part of the song that feels out of place or unnecessary. Of course, it's also immediately noticeable that Jenny Lewis has toned down her typically eccentric writing for a more accessible alternative. Still, the song manages to satisfy and is sure to keep even the most skeptical of Rilo Kiley fans happy. For the time being, at least.

"Close Call" finds Jenny Lewis overpowering the rest of the band with unnecessary and obnoxious "oohs and ahhs." On any other Rilo Kiley album, she'd be obnoxious by writing long, intricate lines and trying to squeeze them into a single phrase, but that was always part of her appeal. Here, she's just flat out not trying as hard (or perhaps too hard to be something she's not), and it shows.

The album's first single, "The Moneymaker" has already drawn mixed reviews from Rilo Kiley fans. Some praise it for it's sharp contrast to their established sound, while others criticize it for the exact same reason. While I'm still not entirely sold on the song, it has grown on me over the last month or so. My biggest complaint with it is not the simple riffs, but the completely unsatisfying lyrics. I read an interview a few days ago where the band stated that they pretty much wrote the whole song in 30 minutes. That's not surprising, considering that in a Rilo Kiley song about porn stars, the best hook they could come up with was "She says ow, ow, ow...hell yeah!"

"Breakin' Up" is my favorite song on the album despite the fact that it's plagued with an overabundance of fake-sounding background vocals. It's disco-esque guitars and synths really prove that Rilo Kiley is capable of branching out and making a real solid pop song, even if the rest of the album is evidence to the contrary. When Jenny Lewis sings "Ooh, it feels good to be free," I just imagine the song being performed live and think about how cool it could be. Of course, when I hear the background vocals repeating the same line without Jenny's assistance, I gag a bit. Oh well, fair trade.

You'd expect a song called "Under the Blacklight" to be an unapologetic dance track, but it's surprisingly one of the most toned down songs on the album. The song fuses an almost 90s alternative rock sound with a twangy country vibe to form what is a respectable ballad. Blake Sennett takes over the vocal duties on "Dreamworld." A throwback to old Fleetwood Mac, it has a definitive 70s pop rock sound to it. I've always favored Blake Sennett's songwriting and singing more than Jenny's for some reason, and this song just seals the deal for me. It's a nice break from Jenny's vocals, which tend to wear thin on my ears on this album.

Never fear though, Jenny fans, she's back on "Dejalo." However, her vocals are noticeably out of place on this funky pop song, and once again the background choir vocals are just entirely unnecessary. Her lyrics are also inexplicably terrible here ("My mom is an atheist. If I stay out late, she don't get pissed"). "15" tells the story that never needed to be told; that of a 25 year old boy being seduced by a 15 year old girl who is "down for almost anything" and "ripe like a cherry, bruised like a peach." The music itself isn't bad at all, even though Jenny is a bit overpowering, but the lyrics are really untouched territory in pop music (for good reason). Whether that's genius or just dumb, I have yet to decide. But it's disturbing either way.

"Smoke Detector" has a very distorted California beach rock feel to it, and I can imagine a bunch of people in one-piece swimsuits hula hooping and doing the twist to this one at some 1960s beach party. It's a very different sound for Rilo Kiley, but that's pretty much par for the course. "The Angels Hung Around" sounds like it could've been featured on "More Adventurous" until it comes to the repetitive chorus where Jenny simply repeats the title a few time. But it's clear-cut country sound is enough to save it from the skip button, as it's one of the few reminders of what Rilo Kiley used to sound like. The album closes with "Give a Little Love," a song that utilizes simple electronic drums, handclaps, and synths. Jenny sings "You've got to give a little love to get a little love" in the chorus. Though the song may not "hit all the right notes" the first time through, I've found it to be a fairly decent song after a few listens.

As I'm sure you can deduce from reading, I have very mixed feelings for "Under the Blacklight." In my mind, that makes it a disappointment, as Rilo Kiley has never gotten mixed reactions from me in the past. In an interview I read with Blake Sennett, he said that the band has played pretty much everything they could except for straightforward pop music. Being fans of the genre, themselves, the opted to give it a try and this album is the result of their efforts. After giving "Under the Blacklight" several listens, I think it's safe to say that Rilo Kiley is better at what they used to play than what is presented here. The band's creativity has been stunted by the petty demands of a genre whose fans offer little to no loyalty to the creators of their cheap thrills. Jenny Lewis in particular has sacrificed a lot of her creative and charming lyrics in favor of repetitive and easy lyrical hooks ("It's gonna be a close call - Repeat," "She says ow, ow, ow...hell yeah - Repeat," "Dejalo, nuestra cosa - Repeat," "Ready to go - Repeat," "Danger, do the smoke detector - Repeat," "The angels hung around - Repeat," "Give a little love - Repeat, repeat, repeat!")

"Under the Blacklight" is a disappointment in comparison to every other Rilo Kiley album to date. While the band is still better than 99% of the people who will now undoubtedly play beside them on the radio, for Rilo Kiley, it just seems like they took the easy way out. While I'm sure the term "sold out" will be thrown around by long time fans, I have no idea what the intentions of the band were when they recorded "Under the Blacklight." All I know is that the Rilo Kiley I fell in love with barely makes an appearance on this album. While the album may grow on me over time, right now, it's just not doing it. For me, "Under the Blacklight" is a disappointment three years in the making.

Recommended for fans of pop music and Rilo Kiley. Decide for yourself.

Key Tracks:
1. "Silver Lining"
2. "The Moneymaker"
3. "Breakin' Up"
4. "Dreamworld"

5 out of 10 Stars


Anonymous said...

You have said exactly what I thought as I listened to the album.

There were a couple of pretty and catchy songs, but mostly it was so stale.

I find that these days I mostly listen to the Initial Friend EP, as even though they were unpolished back then, they were original and endearing.

Thanks for the review.

Anika said...

I completely agree with everything you wrote, great review.