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With a sexy beat, Rilo Kiley tests the indie limits

August 19, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

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 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 clich├ęs 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."

Group effort

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