CD Review of Under the Blacklight by Rilo Kiley

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Under the Blacklight
starstarstarstarno star Label: Warner Bros.
Released: 2007
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It’s somewhat ironic that Rilo Kiley named its last album More Adventurous, because as good as that release was – and you can check any number of hipster-approved music sites for an idea – it’s here the band really branches out. Hearing this is bound to make some fans nervous, because Under the Blacklight is Rilo Kiley’s first full-fledged major-label production. Not since Death Cab for Cutie snuggled up in bed with Atlantic has an indie-geek band with this much cred made the leap to the big time, and there was no shortage of fans crying “sellout” when Death Cab released Plans, its Atlantic debut, a few years ago.

As it turns out, the comparison isn’t completely out of line; just as Death Cab lathered on the major-label gloss for Plans, so does Rilo Kiley here. But wait, there’s more – the band shakes off the folky-poppy trappings of previous recordings and turns in something like a dance record. And you know what? It’s pretty goddamn solid.

The changes are apparent from the opening track, the sinuous, instantly memorable “Silver Lining,” but it isn’t until the third song – the appropriately titled “Moneymaker” – that you really get a sense of where the band is headed. Lead singer Jenny Lewis rides the swaggering retro groove like Deborah Harry’s long-lost (grand)daughter, dripping sex appeal between spiky riffs and thunderous drum fills. It might terrify some of the band’s fans, but it’s one of the most unforgivingly catchy pop songs of the year – and in terms of sheer ‘80s awesomeness, it makes New Wave-channeling acts like the Killers seem lame. (Or even lamer, as the case may be.)

And so the party goes. “Breakin’ Up” is all froth and fizz, a hit single waiting to happen; the title track shifts from a spider web of synths to a lovely, seesawing melody built on beds of acoustic guitars and harmonies; “Dreamworld” mashes up the rhythm track to Wham!’s “Everything She Wants” with the coolest Fleetwood Mac track there ever wasn’t; “Give a Little Love” offers some Casio kisses as a tasty parting shot that sounds like a lost Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam B-side.

Oddly enough, it’s when the band is its most stereotypical self that the album seems to drag. “15” blends a more traditional aesthetic with the Dusty Springfield vibe Lewis favors as a solo act, “Smoke Detector” is a cute, vaguely Hatfield-esque tale of dirty love, and “The Angels Hung Around” takes a Laurel Canyon vibe and drops it on top of a go-go beat, but all of them sound out of place sandwiched between the rest of the record’s shiny, sweaty grooves. But even these slight missteps work in Rilo Kiley’s favor, in a way – with an album this tightly wound, and a band this likable, the flaws only hint at something greater just around the corner.

Blacklight almost certainly won’t shift enough units to make it the fourth-quarter savior that Warner Bros. is surely hoping for, but that’s beside the point, as always – it’s still one of the better pop albums of the year, and the fact that it somehow managed to drop out of a major label’s pant leg during the industry’s latest annus horribilis is worth celebrating all on its own.

~Jeff Giles