I got an advance of "The Moneymaker," the first single from Rilo Kiley's new album Under the Blacklight a couple weeks ago and it did nothing for me. I was disappointed. I love The Execution of All Things, wasn't impressed by More Adventurous, and was not able to get my head around frontwoman Jenny Lewis' solo album Rabbit Fur Coat. I was beginning to think I was a fan of Execution, not Rilo Kiley.
Listening to Under the Blacklights reminds me of a line from Pulp's "This is Hardcore:"
"This is the sound of someone losing the plot
Making out that they're okay when they're not
You're gonna like it, but not a lot…"
Trying to relate to this album is a lot like I imagine trying to relate to your teenage son or daughter. The little bastard is damn difficult to love, but you do it anyway. Under the Blacklight is not the kind of album you instantly embrace, even if its best songs are frontloaded. It's packed with dirty sounds and subjects. It's easy to get lost in what feels like relentless tawdriness and a self-consciously retro sound but when the songs are good – and they are often very, very good – well, you know what they say about a spoonful of sugar.
Under the Blacklight could be a modernized, musical companion to Mark Twain's The Gilded Age. I wonder if the excesses of a generation of glamor girls and their unglamorous behaviors inspired or influenced Lewis' lyrics. Tales of underage sex, promiscuity, and tacit references to pornography describe this album or just another night on the town for Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and a host of other troubled young women.
"Silver Lining" is easily one of the band's best songs. It has a hook, a short but catchy chorus, and accentuates Lewis' strengths as a vocalist. It's got a hummable, memorable melody and layers of sonic glory. Shiny guitars chime and glimmer, synthesizers add texture, and choir-like backing vocals join with Lewis' inspired vocal to create infectious, sunny '70s pop with a danceable gospel feel. But don't let the sunny sounds fool you. "Silver Linings" come with clouds and the lyrics provide plenty of cover.
The mood begins to shift and the sun begins to set with "Close Call." The gospel hope of "Silver Lining" has been replaced by danger and impending gloom in the form of plinking guitars that echo Disintegration-era Cure. Where Robert Smith delivered his gloom with a mope, Lewis' comes in the form of a knowing strut through the underworld where it's a "Funny thing about money for sex/ you might get rich but you die by it." The music has enough sheen and Lewis' voice is still pretty enough to shade listeners from the full effects of the present darkness in the lyrics.
Gospel shifts to gloom, gloom to sleaze with first single "The Moneymaker." It's a lousy choice as a single but it's going to be hotter than the flames of hell and sweatier than me after trying to tie my laces on an August morning when performed in concert. I can only imagine her Jenny-ness holding court on stage and stalking her audience; sleaze, sex, and frenzy in the air. Singles need big hooks and the dirty, sleaze-pop depravity of "The Moneymaker" doesn't have one. The song is crucial to the sonic portrait painted by Blacklight and should be great in concert, but it's not the type of song radio listeners embrace.
The album races to such a promising start but the momentum doesn't carry all the way through to the end. It's as if even the band get fatigued by the overpowering sense of creepiness and the sounds of disco by the time they get around to "The Angels Hung Around," probably the closest thing to a Rilo Kiley-sounding song on the album. The title track, the Blake Sennett-sung "Dreamworld," and the previously mentioned "Silver Lining," "Close Call," and "The Moneymaker" from the core of the record and are strong enough to overpower an occasional misstep. It's not always fun and it's not always good, but those best moments make Under the Blacklight indispensable.