Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight

“VERY Disappointing” ***
“Timeless Classic” *****
“Embarrassing” **
“Unexpected, But Amazing” ****
“What up?” **
“Thank god” ****
“?? Oh come on Rilo” **
“I Think I Just Fell in Love” ****
“What happened to Rilo Kiley?” ***
“Innovative! Awesome! Love it!” *****
“Mixed Feelings” ****
These are all from the iTunes page of Rilo Kiley's new album, Under the Blacklight.

Boy, do I love band/fanbase tension. It’s like crack to me. Or Dunkin Donuts coffee. I’ve read books and books on Bob Dylan and how he has hopped from genre to genre, expectations be damned. I love looking at Neil Young setlists and seeing that he didn’t play a single hit...to the likely frustration of two-thirds of the crowd. I enjoy reading that Wilco’s fans (and critics) are pissed that they’re “selling out” and by selling their songs to VW commercials. I love recalling the chaos that came about on Dave Matthews Band message boards when Dave picked up an electric guitar. The same exhilirating tension that exists in songs that seem about to fall apart before coming together like it was planned all along...that’s what I get when I see a band at odds with its fanbase.

And that’s what I see in Rilo Kiley right now. It’s hard not to. After establishing themselves as alt-country gods, Jenny Lewis (on whom I had a massive crush for the 90 or so minutes it took to watch The Wizard when I was 11), Blake Sennett, Jason Boesel, and Pierre de Reeder pushed back the walls for Under the Blacklight, adding drumloops, harder beats, and somewhat harder subject matter to Lewis’ hypnotic vocals and Sennett’s killer fills. And the reviews from fans are, shall we say, mixed.

I posted this link in a review of Common’s new album Sunday, and I’ll now discuss it in detail here.
[T]his music takes a bit of explaining, since it veers from the bookish bohemian vibe that helped Rilo Kiley become the darlings they are.

"It has a different tone in a lot of ways," said Lewis. "I don't know if it lacks the feeling from our previous records, but it was an attempt on my part to create something different. The sound on this record is as important as the lyrics, if not more important."

Rilo Kiley won the fussy hearts of indie rock eggheads with three albums' worth of extremely pleasant and progressively more polished folk-pop. Often standing just outside the stories she wove -- "It wasn't me, I wasn't there, I was just watching from over here," reads a particularly telling lyric from her 2006 solo album, "Rabbit Fur Coat" -- Lewis dissected the romantic foibles of chronic overthinkers. Her voice was like orange sherbet: cool, sweet, a bit old-fashioned. The music was intellectually driven too, an amalgam of vintage moves and clever little gestures.

As satisfying as this sound was for lovers of sophisticated songcraft, it became limiting. Lewis eventually found herself writing differently, exploring how a strong groove or rousing arrangement can reshape the meaning of words. She also became more interested in music's erotic pull. Perhaps tired of constantly being labeled an "indie pinup," she came up with songs like "Smoke Detector" and "Close Call," which demanded more openly sensual performances even as they explored the costs of putting one's sexuality on the line.

Some fans have expressed bafflement, even rage, over this new direction. The message boards on the popular fan forum rilokiley.net overflow with arguments about whether the tracks that have made it to the Internet can even be classified as Rilo Kiley songs. Some posters have compared them to the work of Gwen Stefani and Fergie. That's an inaccurate description but not shocking, since "Blacklight" producers Mike Elizondo and Jason Lader have worked with major pop stars including Stefani, Eminem and Maroon 5.
Okay, first of all, NOBODY should be compared to Fergie. Nobody.

Second, though I need to digest Under the Blacklight a bit more, I have to say I’m leaning more toward 4 stars than 2. When a talented, open-minded band takes a step in a new direction, they usually land on somewhat solid footing. And even more, it goes great the second time around. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Finally, RK fans really could have seen this coming. Listen to “Love and War (11/11/46)” from More Adventurous...there’s a significant amount of No Doubt (in a good way) in that. Listen to the drum loops on The Execution of All Things’ “The Good That Won’t Come Out” or the artifical sounds in More Adventurous’ “Accidntel Deth”. It’s always been in them. The warning signs were there amidst the alt-country perfection of “I Never” or “Plane Crash in C” or “More Adventurous.” They branched out more and more with each album, and this was a logical—if large—step in an already-established direction. Hell, read some of their interviews, and you realize that they never intended to be labeled 'alt-country' anyway. They've always aimed to be a pop band.

And besides, it’s not like they shelved the instruments entirely and hired Will.i.am and Kanye West as producers here. They’re still Rilo Kiley. Amid the hard beat of “Silver Lining” are still the same syrupy guitar licks and gorgeous vocal exploits. Despite the No Doubtishness of “The Moneymaker”, you still hear the full instrumentation and, again, gorgeous Jenny Lewis vocals. Having such strengths allows you to experiment, and power to those who do just that. Comfort zones are too comfortable.

Anyway, as I said earlier, when a band expands its horizons so definitively, one thing is almost always certain—the second attempt will be better. MUCH better. I mention this because the career track of Rilo Kiley is beginning to remind me of Wilco’s, and that’s very good company.

Let’s compare:

* Their debut (Rilo Kiley’s Take Offs and Landings, Wilco’s A.M.) established their earthen alt-country bonafides but left a lot of room for growth.

* Their second album (The Execution of All Things, Being There) alternated between the expected alt-country goodness and some good old-fashioned genre bending. It was an uneven effort but showed potential beyond what was previously established.

* Their third album (More Adventurous, Summerteeth) took this new direction and made jaw-droppingly good music out of it.

* Their fourth album (Under the Blacklight, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) changed the game entirely.

Two things about that: 1) Wilco’s fifth album (A Ghost Is Born) was their best ever, and 2) I can’t believe I’m saying this, but with each progressive album I think Rilo Kiley has actually been a couple steps beyond where Wilco was. Take Offs is more varied and mature than A.M. Execution > Being There. And honestly, this one’s tough to admit, but More Adventurous > Summerteeth. (I might have to do a “Brain vs iPod” on this one...I may be overstating things, but I don’t think so.) Now, upon first listen, Under the Blacklight doesn't really match up with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (I'm thinking five stars is overstating things a bit), but...well, I wasn’t knocked out by Yankee the first time around either. We'll see what happens.

Either way, I'm looking forward to the next Rilo Kiley album. Is it too early to say that?

Add to Technorati Favorites del.icio.us