Rilo Kiley – For those about to pop
“I think ‘pop’ is a compliment. I love pop music and concise songwriting. And part of what interests me about pop music is that you can sneak stuff in there if it sounds really catchy.”
Five reasons to love Rilo Kiley:
1) The Los Angeles band has never made the same record twice. And the new Under The Blacklight — the foursome’s poppiest, danciest, sexiest and most accessible music to date — is as sonically and thematically different from 2004’s More Adventurous as that album was from their 2001 disc The Execution Of All Things.
2) Each release has seen an exponential boost in Rilo Kiley’s popular profile and critical acclaim, due rewards for a band that has allowed its music and its career to develop organically rather than adhere to some indie pledge or master plan.
3) Where “indie cred” (whatever that is) involves limiting your audience and your appeal to the “cool kids” (whoever they are), Rilo Kiley has shown no aversion to either “pop” or “popularity.”
“Personally, I have no qualms about reaching as many people as possible, as long as the intent and the music is pure,” explains frontwoman Jenny Lewis. “I think ‘pop’ is a compliment. I love pop music and concise songwriting. And part of what interests me about pop music is that you can sneak stuff in there if it sounds really catchy.”
4) Sharp and articulate, Lewis has been (somewhat embarrassingly) characterized by Robert Christgau as “a wet dream for indie boys.” Yet the band hasn’t promoted Lewis as the band’s pinup girl. To the contrary, Rilo Kiley’s bland name and its cover illustrations have served to de-sexualize its image.
5) After decades of midwestern acts heading to Los Angeles in hopes of making it big, Rilo Kiley earned its breakthrough by recording The Execution Of All Things (which some early fans still consider the band’s finest moment) in Nebraska for Omaha’s Saddle Creek label. As Lewis prophesized in the album’s title track, “Then we’ll go to Omaha, to work and exploit the booming music scene and humility.”
Under The Blacklight finds Rilo Kiley a long way from Omaha. Much of the material explores the seedy, seamy side of Los Angeles, in music that evokes the mainstream 1970s — where the disco ball meets the rock arena. Music that has more in common with Fleetwood Mac than Bright Eyes (and even has Jackson Browne guesting on one cut) could give Rilo Kiley a huge mainstream breakthrough, or it could elicit a big backlash as a commercial sellout from the band’s loyal following. Maybe both. It’s because Rilo Kiley has never made the same album twice that this one at a critical juncture is particularly likely to polarize.
“With some bands, it sounds like they’re using the indie-rock plug-in on Pro Tools,” says Lewis. “Like if we take this part of this band that we love and this part of this band that we love, we might create this thing. I guess in regard to the record we just made, exploring the more poppy territory was almost scarier and harder than relying on some of the things that we’ve used on other records that came out on indie labels.”
As the band’s first release on Warner Bros. (which distributed More Adventurous), Under The Blacklight is musically the most buoyant and lyrically the darkest album of Rilo Kiley’s career. It follows a period of independent projects: Lewis released (with the Watson Twins) the well-received, country-tinged Rabbit Fur Coat, an album that attracted more attention for both her and the band, while guitarist Blake Sennett, the band’s co-founder (and Lewis’ former boyfriend) issued his second under-the-radar release with the Elected.
Though the two were songwriting collaborators who shared vocals from the band’s early days through half of the Adventurous material, Blacklight finds only one Lewis/Sennett composition (“Breakin’ Up”). Except for Sennett’s “Dreamworld”, which could fit just fine on a Lindsey Buckingham album, the rest of the material comes from Lewis.
“It has been a gradual progression,” she explains. “The reason why that happened was proximity. Blake and I didn’t hang out at all last year, so there was really no time to get together and work on songs. As our relationship has evolved personally and creatively, it has kind of led us in this direction.”
“I think it’s a very healthy thing,” says bassist Pierre de Reeder. “In every band, the biggest enemy is that fear of implosion from battling egos and artistic differences and all that cliched stuff. And we’ve evolved into this thing that allows people to explore those individual avenues outside and then adds that excitement to coming back and doing this thing again.”
Lewis and Sennett, both of whom had supporting credits as young actors, began making music together in the mid-1990s, playing coffeehouses as an acoustic duo. After a few years apart, they decided to form a band, without having a clear musical direction in mind.
“It took us three years to make a record, because we didn’t know what we wanted to do,” says Sennett. “We’d tinker around with different stuff. And then with Take Offs And Landings, our first record, I still don’t think I know what kind of music that is.”
As for the band’s name, “I had a dream,” continues Sennett. “Sounds kinda pretentious, but in the dream there was a person who was telling me the date of Jenny’s death, and that was his name. I wrote it down on a cocktail napkin, and a year later, when we needed a band name, I was looking through a junk drawer for something else and remember finding that name and going oh, that’s weird. It was really just an interim, temporary name, but we couldn’t think of anything better.”
Though Take Offs And Landings made minimal impact, it sent the band on the road with Superchunk for a tour which began, ominously, just after the terrorist attacks of September 11. “At the time we had all these songs that we had written and recorded long before, and they were all about plane crashes and planes smashing up in the sky [as reflected in the album’s title]”, explains Lewis. “Which was an interesting challenge to be tasteful during that time. So we were all feeling strange, and there was another band on the bill from Omaha called the Good Life, and we became friends with them. And they took us through Nebraska in the middle of the tour, and we met Mike Mogis, who then produced our next record [The Execution Of All Things].”