Finding the backbeat

The Baltimore Sun

HOLLYWOOD -- There is a girl in a tank top who appears in the lyrics of "Smoke Detector," a backbeat-powered, beach party-worthy romp on Under the Blacklight, the fourth album by the much-loved Los Angeles band Rilo Kiley. She is not wearing a bra, and she cries "Danger!" when she hits the dance floor. Jenny Lewis created this character. But she can't completely relate.

"It's not me. I always wear a bra," said Lewis, the band's singer and principal songwriter.

"That girl without a bra is a real person," Jason Boesel, Rilo Kiley's drummer, quickly chimed in. "We saw her dancing at a Paul Frank party on the grounds of Wild Rivers, the water park. She didn't seem cool. But at that moment, she was hot."

Sitting in the parking lot of the Swinghouse studios in central Hollywood, chatting before a rehearsal for their coming European tour, the members of Rilo Kiley seem a bit conversationally frayed.

They're dictionary-definition critics' darlings: four smart, stylish musical adepts whose elegant pop has a vintage sheen and the most thoughtful lyrics this side of a Stephen Sondheim musical. Under the Blacklight, which was released Tuesday, has earned raves in the big glossy music magazines and is No. 2 (behind M.I.A.'s Kala) on the charts at the leading indie Web retailer Insound.

Still, this music takes a bit of explaining, as it veers from the bookish bohemian vibe that helped Rilo Kiley become darlings.

"It has a different tone in a lot of ways," said Lewis. "I don't know if it lacks the feeling from our previous records, but it was an attempt on my part to create something different. The sound on this record is as important as the lyrics, if not more important."

Rilo Kiley won the fussy hearts of indie rock eggheads with three albums' worth of extremely pleasant and progressively more polished folk-pop. Often standing just outside the stories she wove, Lewis dissected the romantic foibles of chronic overthinkers. The music was intellectually driven, too.

As satisfying as this sound was for lovers of sophisticated songcraft, it became limiting. Lewis found herself writing differently, exploring how a strong groove or rousing arrangement can reshape the meaning of words. She also became more interested in music's erotic pull. Perhaps tired of constantly being labeled an "indie pinup," she came up with songs like "Smoke Detector" and "Close Call," which demanded more openly sensual performances even as they explored the costs of putting one's sexuality on the line.

Some fans have expressed bafflement, even rage, over this new direction. The message boards on the popular fan forum overflow with arguments about whether the tracks that have made it to the Internet can even be classified as Rilo Kiley songs.

Until this point, Rilo Kiley has not released anything close to a banger. No one would have called the group a dance band; they were more like a stand-around-and-think band. Since Rilo Kiley formed in 1998, Lewis has become one of indie rock's finest lyricists.

And although she proved able to take the lead on her excellent 2006 solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, her Rilo Kiley crew (which includes guitarist and frequent co-songwriter Blake Sennett and bassist Pierre "Duke" de Reeder) has, by growing with her, given Lewis the inventive support she needs.

Now, after a two-year hiatus, Rilo Kiley has returned with a new agenda. It's not so much about becoming accessible - that's the word nearly every review of Blacklight employs - as about thinking with the music-mad right brain as much as the wordy left.

If any member seems challenged by Rilo Kiley's move toward letting the beat do at least some of the talking, it's Lewis. Having cultivated the art of waxing literary, she had to shift toward something more like minimalism - or like commercial pop songwriting, in which emblematic phrases and vivid, quick images substitute for more elaborate tale-spinning. "It was difficult," she said several times, describing the writing process.

A few songs - "Breakin' Up" and "The Angels Hung Around" - are old-school Rilo Kiley, blending post-New Wave melodicism with alt-country twang and inward-looking lyrics. But on most, Lewis pushes herself beyond her comfort zone, seeing what happens when she lets her voice communicate as much as her words always have.

Maybe that's why so much of Blacklight is about self-endangerment: Lewis is taking a chance with this music that violates the "indie pinup" image that's inarguably benefited her. She's saying, "OK, you want to objectify me? Well, this is what an objectified woman sounds like." And sometimes her utterances are not so neat or perfectly constructed. Sometimes she just lets loose a hungry, angry wail over a glamorous groove.

Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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