Under the Blacklight
thought accusing bands of selling out went the way of actually paying for music, but my inside sources tell me that "The Moneymaker" and its NSFW video had the hardcore Rilo Kiley faithful pissssssssssed. My only question is, "why now?" They put that work in at Barsuk and Saddle Creek, but they've been continually beefing up their resume in a manner as protracted as that of a future Harvard applicant. They ate their way up the indie food chain and when it came time to go major on More Adventurous, they did what made sense: benching Blake Sennett almost completely (which continues to this day) and releasing "Portions for Foxes" as the first single, a song whose selling point was cruelly misinforming listeners about their chances of fulfilling the #1 goal of most indie-rock fanboys: getting loaded with—and then fucking—Jenny Lewis. It didn't matter that More Adventurous airbrushed out their agreeable quirks and sounded like something that came from under a zamboni as opposed to a recording studio; the fact that Rilo Kiley didn't go supernova felt more like a malfunction of star-making machinery than a result of being too difficult for mass consumption.
Under the Blacklight is essentially a do-over with better press coverage, and Lewis has been upfront about how the record was greatly influenced by the pornography industry thriving in the Van Nuys area in which she was raised. Ostensibly, the intention was to create a Boogie Nights-type document with a hedonistic veneer disguising the despair that comes from a life of cocaine-fueled fucking. But Rilo Kiley are either terrible whores or they need to be at the receiving end of a stronger pimp hand; all I can envision while listening to Under the Blacklight is Dirk Diggler straining to sell "Feel My Heat" over canned instrumentals of Top Gun guitars. Producer Mike Elizondo, already seen in LA as the mustache-twirling villain who sullied poor Fiona Apple, continues to enable Rilo Kiley's obsession with sounding like a band playing Casio presets of real instruments.
The obvious comparison here is the eponymous drink coaster from Liz Phair, but at least she was smart enough to outsource to people who've done time in the teen pop trenches. Under the Blacklight, on the other hand, sounds like an indie rock band's idea of what a mainstream pop record is supposed to sound like. More specifically, a weird Venn diagram of trash and treasure from an indie rock band that always favored the "realism" of country music and me-first lyrics over slam dunk melodies. "Silver Lining" and "Close Call" start off the proceedings with an agreeably frosty stained-glass sound reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie's Plans, but the hook-writing shortcomings show quickly; both feature nearly identical choruses in which Lewis works up to a hanging high note that never resolves. It doesn't help matters that all of this is true of the title track as well. And while Lewis is still wisely developing a more commanding vocal presence and shedding whatever inhibitions her bandmates have left, "three sheets to the wind like a clothes hanging line," "she was bruised like a cherry" (both from the predatory "15"), and the dime-thin conceit of "Smoke Detector"…sorry, but that's not something that would come from a singer who's lost Ben Gibbard's phone number.
I realize that even in 2007, rock critics still tend to cast a wary eye on such overt commercial intentions, but Under the Blacklight is so fucking clueless in its exploding chemistry experiments that it actually manages to be somewhat charming. Bands aren't necessarily as good as the company they keep—Discovery, Since I Left You, and even Permission to Land spun gold out of rather dubious source materials—but while Rilo Kiley certainly flex a knowledge of kitschy pop maneuvers, they haven't the slightest idea how to employ them. Lyrically, "Breakin' Up" is a big can of Nashville corn and once the disco backing vocals break out like herpes in the chorus to sing the title, they may as well be saying "clusterfuck." Why "The Moneymaker" would be seen as a sell-out move is unclear, since the almost-"Stayin' Alive" enunciations of Lewis are the only thing that could pass for a hook and its Silver Lake strut has the funk quotient of a pleated pair of Dockers. As for the Spanglish conga liner "Dejalo," I'll say this: no one ends up sounding like Miami Sound Machine by accident, but those songs are still stuck in my head two decades after hearing them in my mom's station wagon. So maybe "Dejalo" is Under the Blacklight's greatest success.
At the very least, you can credit Rilo Kiley for refusing to follow the Saddle Creek path of least resistance. Conor Oberst and Tim Kasher will likely be churning out rootsy tributes to their own bloated senses of self far into their 50s, and if Cassadaga and Happy Hollow were any indication, they will be hopelessly boring. The one thing you can't accuse Under the Blacklight of is being boring, but it abides by an either/or sort of mentality that presumes that a complete lack of substance is the only alternative to the kind of music Rilo Kiley and their pals made in 2002. For all of the T&A talk, this is not hardcore; the overly unrealistic scenery and dialogue has more in common with Cinemax or even MTV's “Undressed,” so forthright in its pursuit of plasticity that it's not worth figuring out if the performer or the observer is being demeaned. It's both.