With a sexy beat, Rilo Kiley tests the indie limits
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 upcoming European tour, the members of Rilo Kiley already seems 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 will be released Tuesday, already 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, since it veers from the bookish bohemian vibe that helped Rilo Kiley become the darlings they are.
“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 -- “It wasn’t me, I wasn’t there, I was just watching from over here,” reads a particularly telling lyric from her 2006 solo album, “Rabbit Fur Coat” -- Lewis dissected the romantic foibles of chronic overthinkers. Her voice was like orange sherbet: cool, sweet, a bit old-fashioned. The music was intellectually driven too, an amalgam of vintage moves and clever little gestures.
As satisfying as this sound was for lovers of sophisticated songcraft, it became limiting. Lewis eventually 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 rilokiley.net overflow with arguments about whether the tracks that have made it to the Internet can even be classified as Rilo Kiley songs. Some posters have compared them to the work of Gwen Stefani and Fergie. That’s an inaccurate description but not shocking, since “Blacklight” producers Mike Elizondo and Jason Lader have worked with major pop stars including Stefani, Eminem and Maroon 5.
“Smoke Detector” is a good example of the evolution “Blacklight” represents. The song’s lyrics are simple and direct, a self-aware play of clichés about “hot” women; musical puns like Lewis’ go-go girl vocals and a bed of hip-shaking handclaps amplify its impact. Like most of the standout tracks on “Blacklight,” it’s not just a compelling story with some pleasant music to hold it up. It’s an exploration of the chemical equilibrium of music and words.
“That song was actually inspired by the Fiery Furnaces, one of my favorite bands,” said Lewis. “It was a really weird keyboard-based song, with syncopated rhythms and a bunch of time changes. I brought it in to the band, and we tried it with Jason Lader. But it felt really off.”
“Rhythmically, we couldn’t get it right,” Boesel said. “Elizondo then came in and answered our question of how we could get it to feel dancier.”
“He killed my keyboard part, which I was open to,” Lewis said. “And I feel the song really opened up once my part got axed.”
“He stripped it down,” Boesel said, “and made it kind of a banger.”
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, balancing the emotive and the observational with a grace that puts her close to greats like Elvis Costello (who’s her admirer) and Joni Mitchell. And though she proved able to take the lead on the excellent “Rabbit Fur Coat,” her Rilo Kiley crew -- especially guitarist and frequent co-songwriter Blake Sennett -- has, by growing with her, given Lewis the inventive support she needs.
Now, after a two-year hiatus that saw Sennett and bassist Pierre “Duke” de Reeder also helming projects of their own and Boesel playing with Conor Oberst in Bright Eyes (and on his bandmates’ side projects), 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.
‘We recorded a whole lot, and then in amassing tracks for a record, the criterion became, does it make you want to move?” said Sennett. The band tracked several songs live with Lader (playing together instead of isolating each part and overdubbing later), which turned their focus toward finding a mutually satisfying groove. Elizondo turned other songs around by suggesting new arrangements and beats.
“The direction was really dictated by the band,” said Elizondo by phone from his studio, where he’s now working on Dr. Dre’s upcoming solo album. “Some of Jenny’s songs already had this rhythmic quality. And of course you have a totally world-class drummer in Jason Boesel. We weren’t trying to force songs to be rhythmic; it was already going that way. And with my background, I could take some of their ideas and make them work in the context of their sound.”
Prioritizing the booty allowed Sennett to indulge his love for juicy guitar fills -- “we call him the Fisherman, because he has so many hooks,” De Reeder explained with a laugh -- and to pen his best Rilo Kiley song yet: “Dreamworld,” a sultry late-1970s-feel pop blues featuring the Waters, the veteran family group who sang on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and myriad other hits, from Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” to the theme from “The Jeffersons.”
The song’s shimmering guitar part came from De Reeder. “Duke is our secret weapon,” said Sennett. “He had never played so much guitar before, in such a committed way. There were points during the recording when we’d all be like, nothing’s happening in this moment! And Duke would say, ‘I have something,’ and it would just be epic.”
Time apart has apparently led all of Rilo Kiley’s members to feel more comfortable together. “In the studio, we’re not just playing our parts and walking away,” said Sennett. “We’re all so heavily involved in the decision-making that it’s almost incidental if you actually are playing a particular part.”
“We really let go of a lot of stuff on this record,” added Lewis. “It became OK if we didn’t participate fully on each song, as far as playing everything.”
Boesel faced the biggest challenge in this regard. Elizondo, who’s helped execute hip-hop home runs for Eminem and 50 Cent, led the band toward using computerized sequences to complement live drums on some songs. Boesel’s kit is silent on only one song, the album closer, “Give a Little Love,” but throughout the recording he needed to think of drumming differently.
“All the songs that were light on live drums, I was still making decisions,” Boesel explained. “That’s as gratifying somehow. You’re constructing this beat, and it doesn’t matter if your limbs are playing it or your mind is executing it.”
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.
After puzzling over twentysomething life in Silver Lake on earlier Rilo Kiley records and tackling God and family on “Rabbit Fur Coat,” Lewis also let the sensual sounds on “Blacklight” steer her toward a new subject: the tricky intersection of sex, money and power.
The band put the theme forward in no uncertain terms with the video for “Moneymaker,” the first single from “Blacklight.” The song itself is a funk-rock jam with snaky, intertwining guitar and bass parts and deliberately ambiguous lyrics centered on a seductive, mostly wordless chorus that could fit into a vintage LaBelle song. “The lyrics are intentionally simple, so you can project what you want onto them,” Lewis said.
What the song leaves to the imagination, the video fleshes out. Directed by L.A.'s favorite indie-rock shutterbug, Autumn de Wilde, it features a trio of adult-film stars engaging in soft-core foreplay (and a little backup singing) as the band seduces the camera its own way.
“I felt like I was in Bon Jovi or something,” Lewis said when asked how it felt to sing with porn vixens Faye Runaway and Hailey Young shaking it behind her. Then she got more serious. “It was emotional at times, and I felt like a true feminist. What’s more empowering than money for sex? But what’s riskier too?”
The long-form version of “Moneymaker” features interviews with Runaway, Young and several other aspiring or successful porn actors discussing their lives and aspirations. It concludes with Tommy Gunn, award-winning star of approximately 450 films, in a pensive mood. “What did I sacrifice to have this?” he wonders, a shadow falling over his bronzer-kissed face.
The predators and quarry who shimmy and crawl through “Blacklight” all eventually face that question. Open marriage, divorce, prostitution, illicit Internet encounters: Lewis lets her characters speak from all of these experiences and more.
A few songs -- “Breakin’ Up” and “The Angels Hung Around,” which features guitar from Jackson Browne -- 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.
Powers is The Times’ pop music critic.