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Rilo Kiley’s Incidental Pop Album

May. 20, 2008
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  For every band that finds wealth, stardom and happiness after signing to a major label, there are countless others crushed by the experience. Rilo Kiley doesn’t quite fall into either camp, guitarist Blake Sennett explains. The band’s tenure on Warner Bros. has been pleasant enough—marked by friendly, helpful people and devoid of interference from calculating executives or other horrors—but, Sennett concedes, “In ways, we probably shouldn’t have made the leap to a major label.

  “It seemed like the next natural step, something we had to do to reach people, but I think it was probably a miscue,” Sennett adds. “I’m not going to say it was a mistake, but I’m not going to say it was … well, the opposite of a mistake.”

  Sennett explains that major labels simply don’t have much to offer a band like Rilo Kiley, which through years of touring and releasing independent albums had cemented a respectable fan base well before they inked a deal with Warner Bros. The promise of a generous studio budget wasn’t particularly a draw, since Rilo Kiley knew how to record on the cheap, and the band showed little interest in taking advantage of the major-label marketing machine, refusing to aggressively push singles or do the requisite radio appearances.

  “Maybe when we started refusing to do all the stuff you have to do to become a successful, platinum-selling artist, it became clear that we weren’t a good fit for this platform,” Sennett says.

  Sennett speaks with a defensiveness that suggests there’s also another reason he regrets the move to Warner Bros. Although he maintains that his once-quaint indie-rock band has no real commercial (or even financial) ambitions, conventional wisdom nonetheless cast the band’s high-polish, official major-label debut, Under the Blacklight, as a bid for pop stardom, an allegation he clearly finds unflattering.

  “It’d be false to say we made a concerted attempt to become a pop band, because we didn’t,” Sennett says with more than a hint of exasperation. “If some of the new songs sound more accessible on a commercial level to some people, that’s because that’s the type of record that we felt like making. From a creative standpoint, we certainly don’t feel that we made this record any different from the previous ones, and if you know any pop band, you know the shit they have to go through to make a pop record. We didn’t do that stuff, we don’t do that stuff and we won’t ever do that stuff.”

  To be sure, Under the Blacklight isn’t the pandering pop album detractors have dismissed it as. It may trade the twee twang of Rilo Kiley’s independent albums for hot-and-heavy, ’80s-inflected modern rock and play up frontwoman Jenny Lewis’ newfound sex-symbol fame, but a persistent, sullen undercurrent trails the sleaze, guilt-tripping the listener mid-lap-dance. “Funny thing about money for sex/ You might get rich but you’ll die by it,” Lewis frets on “Close Call,” one of the album’s many downtrodden tales of corrupted innocence.

  “Our concept was to take these very dark stories and sugarcoat them in a candy coating to create this twisted pop album,” Sennett says. “We weren’t talking about writing a song that everyone can relate to come prom night—that’s not in our playbook. It feels like a fun record, and I guess we had more fun with it, but I don’t feel like it has any anthemic singles on it, or that these songs were supposed to make us into, I don’t know, fucking Shania Twain or something.”

  Rilo Kiley has tour dates booked through June, but after that their future is up in the air. Under the Blacklight arrived a full three years after Rilo Kiley’s previous album, and in that time the surprise response to Lewis’ 2006 solo album turned her into a rising star. She’s working on a solo follow-up. Meanwhile, Sennett—who once split songwriting duties nearly evenly with Lewis, and whose diminishing role in the band coincided with the end of their romantic involvement—continues to front his other band, The Elected, and is working on a dance-music project.

  “The nature of our band has always been tumultuous,” says Sennett, who admits he’s questioned whether Under the Blacklight might be the final Rilo Kiley album. “Jenny and I have always written songs, and now we’re doing respective other projects and we’re both having a blast. Until it feels like we should go back and do another Rilo Kiley record, we won’t.”

  Rilo Kiley plays an 8 p.m. show at the Pabst Theater on Friday, May 23, with openers The Spinto Band and Nik Freitas.

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