Many people will be concerned with the effect a major label will have on Rilo Kiley. It’s a valid concern, for sure, except that Rilo Kiley has been under the major-label umbrella — however slyly — since 2004’s More Adventurous. And so Under the Blacklight, the band’s first release with the Warner Brothers logo proudly displayed, technically escapes that particular brand of scrutiny, right? No such luck. The unfortunate truth is that despite Brute/Beaute’s release of More Adventurous with the distribution might of Warner Brothers behind it, the stylistic changes and outright poppy-ness of Under the Blacklight will force reviewers, fans, and indie hipsters alike to rally behind the familiar war-cry of major-label meddling.
There’s also the specter of two solo careers — Blake Sennett’s two-album-deep the Elected and Jenny Lewis’s almost alt-country solo album of last year. Whether or not this is compartmentalizing Rilo Kiley’s sound or limiting its available pool of songs is anyone’s guess, though; Lewis’s heavily bootlegged live debut of the material that would eventually end up on Rabbit Fur Coat includes her prefacing “You Are What You Love” with a quick, shy declaration that she thinks it might be a Rilo Kiley song.
Those are the things that people will busy themselves thinking about instead of trying to adjust to a band that has historically been easily bored: The members shift genres restlessly (most notably on their 2001 debut, Take-Offs and Landings), rework their songs into synth-and-drum-machine interludes (see 2002’s The Execution of All Things and, if you’re bored, Tool’s Aenima), and pull left-and-right from their bottomless back catalog during live sets, never sticking too closely to their current output.
Under the Blacklight is at once more ethereal that anything Rilo Kiley has ever managed previously. Even rhythm-heavy foot-tappers like opener “Silver Lining” and lead-off single “The Moneymaker” have a disconnected, feeling-over-thinking milieu about them. Lyrically, the same holds true. While Lewis’s often overly analytical words aren’t altogether gone, they are altogether more subtle without losing the cleverness that has always been her greatest strength. The faithful acolytes will likely be enamored of “The Angels Hung Around” and “Breakin’ Up” and will probably revile “Dejalo,” which will no doubt rouse suspicions of solo-tour influence on Lewis’s day job (see the unreleased solo-tour cornerstone “Fernando”).
But the only real disappointment in Under the Blacklight is that Sennett doesn’t take center stage more than once. Sennett’s songs have always been the secret gems of Rilo Kiley’s albums, from “So Long” to “Ripchord” to (however grudgingly) “Rest of My Life.” But “Dreamworld” is not just one of the better songs on Under the Blacklight; it is, almost mathematically, the best song on the album. That the album doesn’t benefit from more Sennett-heavy songs is a shame; his airy-to-the-point-of-a-whisper vocals are exactly matched to the ethereal instrumentation of the album.
For what is, in essence, a great hand-clap band, Under the Blacklight is a wish fulfilled. It’s not an album of songs that get stuck in your head; no, it appears that Rilo Kiley has become too wily for that. It’s an album of songs that will get under your skin in the best possible way, to the point where, hours after hearing it, it will be impossible not to hum the best hooks to yourself. For fans that want More Adventurous, however, it’s just desserts for not thinking more highly of Rilo Kiley’s knack for pop songwriting and well-coifed eclecticism.