Rilo Kiley | A Slicker, Sexier Sound


"[The support structure in the band] was a relief, but in other ways, we have to learn to compromise again. And learn to be criticized. You just have to know the limits, and to know that you're making a record with people you want to make a record with."




There are usually two types of stories written about Rilo Kiley: those that focus on singer Jenny Lewis, and those that take a more balanced, overall approach to the L.A. indie band's career so far. I must confess it would be easy for me to take that first route. I have a major crush on Ms. Lewis that I could expound on at length. She's like the ultimate girl next door who made all the right moves to achieve rock 'n' roll frontwoman status, and she has a fresh, infectious energy that is utterly beguiling. From the vintage babydoll dresses and knee socks she's prone to wear onstage to her doe-eyed smile and eyebrow-grazing bangs, Lewis melts the hearts of male fans far and wide; there's just something extra special about her. Oh, and did I mention she can sing? Throughout the four Rilo Kiley CDs released to date, including the brand-new Under the Blacklight—and on last year's triumphant solo disc Rabbit Fur Coat—Lewis has shown she can handle sparkling pop-rockers, introspective ballads, and even gospel-flavored country with equal flair and conviction. So it'd be utterly disingenuous of me not to admit that I'm more than a little fond of this former child actress turned rock goddess.

Ah, but there is so much about Rilo Kiley to appreciate these days. Their last album More Adventurous was just that, and found them breaking through to a much wider audience, thanks to a batch of well-crafted songs that hung together beautifully as an album. In the year and a half since then, guitarist Blake Sennett recorded a second album with his side project The Elected, drummer Jason Boesel worked with Bright Eyes, and Lewis, of course, recorded and toured with the Watson Twins, keeping very much in the indie spotlight. Now the foursome are creatively rejuvenated and ready to rock it RK-style once again. So the obvious question is: What does it feel like for the band, getting back together after taking such a long break and pursuing their solo projects?

"Well, I think it's a relief in certain ways, 'cause you have that support structure in place," said Sennett, reached by phone at the office of Rilo Kiley's new label, Warner Bros. "In that regard it was a relief, but in other ways, we have to learn to compromise again. And learn to be criticized. You just have to know the limits, and to know that you're making a record with people you want to make a record with." 

They've turned up the heat this time, that's for sure. Although the rhythm section of Boesel and bassist Pierre de Reeder is a vital component of the Kiley sound, past albums haven't been nearly as rhythm-centric as the new outing, which gets down and dirty at times (one recent review described it as "gloriously decadent") and mines some deliciously sexy grooves. "The Moneymaker" is already getting plenty of attention for its salacious video (featuring real porn stars, the subject of the tuneand directed by cutting-edge lenser Autumn De Wilde); the song itself features Sennett's stabbing guitar lines and funky percussion, and evokes late '70s Rolling Stones. The Spanish-flavored "Dejalo" will fuel more than a few male fantasies, as a peppery Lewis sings, "I've got a tail if you wanna chase it/ I've got a tongue if you want to taste it." Other songs like "Smoke Detector" and the catchy, R&B-tinged opener "Silver Lining" also seem to fire up the urge to seek physical release. Was Rilo Kiley trying consciously to make a sexier record this time out?

"We sought out to do that in a way," said Sennett, a bit tentatively. "I think the album's a little bit lighter in the sounds, but the themes are probably as dark as they've ever been. The songs are a lot more character-driven this time."

Lewis addressed the more provocative subject matter in a recent interview with Britain's NME. "As a woman, the older I get the more comfortable I feel writing about sex and singing about it, whereas in my late teens and early 20s I wouldn't have dared," she said. "But now I feel comfortable enough where I can start writing about sexnot necessarily about my own experiences, but the sexual lives of others."

One example of this preoccupation is undoubtedly the song "15," a classic Kiley track that tackles the theme of a 15-year-old girl seducing an older man. But Lewis turns in one of her strongest vocals here, more akin to the style she explored on her solo album. For Sennett, the song was one of the highlights of the Blacklight recording sessions.

"That was real special to do," he said. "It's got a classic sensibility to it and just sort of arranged itself. We didn't really have to talk much about it, we just played it…and it was ready to go."

Another effortless-sounding number is "Dreamworld," which sports a stirring Sennett vocal and a definite Fleetwood Mac vibe. It's California ear candy at its finest, along with "Breakin' Up," a danceable number that also harkens back to the '70s. Listening to Lewis sing cheerily about a relationship that dissolves by cell phone is a funny mix of retro and modern elements.

Rilo Kiley's lyrics have always been strong, prompting no less an artist than Elvis Costello to rave that the band were among the most talented new groups he'd heard. But the overall sound of Blacklight was as much a concern as the lyrical themes this time, and some of that is likely due to co-producers Jason Lader and Mike Elizondo, better known for working with hip hop artists like 50 Cent, Eminem and Dr. Dre. Elizondo helped nail the vibe of songs like "Smoke Detector," which the band was having trouble getting right until Elizondo made some creative suggestions.

"In the past, I think we were less open to interference," said Sennett, regarding the role of producers the band's worked with. "But I think this time we came into it, and we were really ready. I love Mike. Those guys just sort of helped it along, you know? Mostly they did what we wanted."

Various internet sites have already lit up with discussion about Rilo Kiley's new direction, with some fans perplexed about the dancier stuff, even making comments about the band "selling out." But more open-minded listeners will find it refreshing to follow the band into new stylistic territory on Under the Blacklight—and after all, plenty of more familiar moments like "The Angels Hung Around" grace the disc. Why complain if one of the best indie quartets out there, now happily signed to a major label for the first time, is in the mood to make an upbeat party album? It's partly reflected in the new disc's title.

"A lot of parties have blacklights, and we have a bit of a party vibe on the record. I also think it means that when you look at stuff under a blacklight, you can see imperfections. You can see things that you couldn't see otherwise. It's that kind of metaphor."

Certainly there's more than meets the eye with Rilo Kiley. No one would have predicted a few years ago that Jenny Lewis would make a classic country record, just as few could have predicted the band would generate a handful of dance-floor anthems this time out. It's fascinating watching RK develop, and seeing them integrate so many diverse influences with ease. So it would be unwise to underestimate the California foursome, even though Lewis and Co. always sound remarkably modest when interviewed.

"Our goal with this band is just to put out this record, and try to have a good time," said Sennett. "We want to enjoy each other, try not to take it too seriously. Yeah, I'm happy. People are coming to our shows. They give a shit about our songs. What's not to be happy about?" | Kevin Renick


Rilo Kiley upcoming tour dates

09-06 San Francisco, CA – The Warfield
09-07 Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom
09-08 Seattle, WA – Showbox
09-10 Orem, UT – McKay Events Center
09-11 Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre
09-12 Columbia, MO – Jesse Auditorium at University of Missouri
09-13 Omaha, NE – Sokol Auditorium
09-14 Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
09-15 Chicago, IL – Riviera Theatre
09-17 Royal Oak, MI – Royal Oak Music Theatre
09-18 Toronto, Ontario – Phoenix Theatre
09-19 Montreal, Quebec – La Tulipe
09-21 Boston, MA – Avalon
09-22 New York, NY – Webster Hall
09-23 New York, NY – Webster Hall
09-25 Philadelphia, PA – Trocadero
09-26 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
09-27 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
09-28 Asheville, NC – The Orange Peel
09-29 Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse
10-01 Fort Lauderdale, FL – Revolution
10-02 Orlando, FL – House of Blues
10-04 New Orleans, LA – The Republic
10-05 Houston, TX – Warehouse Live
10-06 Dallas, TX – Palladium Ballroom
10-07 Austin, TX – Stubb's Bar-B-Q
10-09 Tucson, AZ – Rialto Theatre
10-10 Tempe, AZ – Marquee Theatre
10-12 San Diego, CA – SOMA
10-13 Las Vegas, NV – The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel
10-15 Santa Monica, CA – Civic Auditorium

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