Thursday, August 23, 2007

L.A. on the brain

Record Review
Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklight

Looking at the album cover for Under the Blacklight, you'd be right to assume that Rilo Kiley is trying to do something a bit different on this album. And in one big way you'd be right. It's still the same band, with the same sorts of melodic pop. But now they're sleazy.

Yes, sleazy. It's just about the last word that comes to mind when one thinks of Jenny Lewis. She and Neko Case have been battling it for the title of most lusted after indie songstress for quite some time now (anyone who throws Feist into that mix is dreaming), and when pressed I get the feeling that most indie guys would choose Ms. Lewis. Her porcelain doll looks and cooing voice go a long way to make that argument.

But she seems to be getting sick of that image. She's more obsessed now with the dirty side of life, the angel turned pornstar, the innocent turned filthy. The first sign of this was the video for The Moneymaker, starring adult film stars Faye Runaway, Hailey Young, and Tommy Gunn:

The cover of the record looks like a still from a low-budget snuff film, and Ms. Lewis sings of sleazy characters and supercharged sexual beings all over this record. On "Close Call" she sings of an uncommonly beautiful woman struggling on the edge of depravity, a real note of tension wavering across her voice. It seems like they are really trying to make a suite of songs about the sleazy side of life.

But it just doesn't work for them. This album is lyrically their weakest to date. They give up the frenetic, inspired wordplay of More Adventurous for surface stories of people on the fringes of life. Their offbeat words were always the strongest thing to recommend them as a band, but such things don't often translate well to major label debuts. There are, of course, exceptions on the album. "Dreamworld" has some interesting imagery in it, and "The Angels Hung Around" recaptures some of their previous lyrical magic. On the whole, however, they seem to be sacrificing their lyrical talents for the sake of a greater theme.

Under the Blacklight is a very good album in spite of this, however, because musically it is a magnificent piece of pop craftsmanship. The production is significantly stepped up on this album, but rather than drowning their songs, it fleshes them out and turns them into bigger, better things. Even their forays into disco, "Breakin' Up" and "Dejalo," are endearing rather than annoying, bright pieces of fluff that make you nod your head. The title track is the best songs I've heard from them, a lilting juggernaut of a song. The whole thing smacks of Southern California; it's the first album that they have made that roots them in a specific place.

I think I'd still choose More Adventurous if pressed. That album's strength is in its words, which survive long after the music grows tiresome. At a time, however, when I am picking up stakes and moving to L.A., I can not think of a better album to driving in a Uhaul across California than Under the Blacklight. It's a perfect piece of summertime pop.


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