- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rilo Kiley

Under the Blacklightt

Warner Bros.

Rilo Kiley is increasingly a showcase for the smooth, versatile voice of lead singer Jenny Lewis. That voice also anchors the group’s genre-trolling sprawl of songs encompassing contemporary country, soul, disco, garage and alternative rock.

Though Rilo Kiley always maintained an identity rooted in alt-country, it has come completely unmoored on “Under the Blacklight.” Blake Sennett’s songwriting skips effortlessly among genres, sometimes even in the same song. Miss Lewis and Mr. Sennett both grew up in Los Angeles, where they were child actors. Miss Lewis had a featured role in the film “Pleasantville,” while Mr. Sennett is best remembered for his portrayal of “Joey the Rat” Epstein on the teen sitcom “Boy Meets World.” Their proximity to Hollywood’s unforgiving dream machine may account for the blend of wide-eyed optimism and bitterness that characterizes Rilo Kiley lyrics.

The downbeat, ambivalent “Close Call” sounds like a cautionary tale about a child star with “a gypsy mother and bucket of tears” who is teetering on the edge of becoming a prostitute. On the title track, Miss Lewis assumes the part of a girl pleading with a troubled father, singing, “Will you get sober? Will you get kinder?” The song takes a turn toward resignation when she adds, “When I get older/I won’t remember.”

On “Give a Little Love,” Miss Lewis looks out from the inside of a failing relationship (“You got your troubles/ got mine/On a clear day, I can read your mind.”) To varying degrees on each of these three tracks, Miss Lewis‘ gimlet eye is at least briefly distracted by an outlying possibility of hope. The vocal style, especially the chorus and harmonies on all three tracks, sounds like an homage to the wrenching, California-inspired songs by Aimee Mann that appeared on the soundtrack to the 1999 film “Magnolia” right down to the sound of the chorus and backing vocal parts.

Without a doubt, “Breakin’ Up” is the hit of the record. The disco-inspired rhythms and upper register backing vocals on the chorus are a nod to woman-alone anthems such as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. Here Miss Lewis assumes an unapologetically confident pose, singing, “It’s not as if New York City burned down to the ground once you drove away.” The beat is infectious, and the gathering power of the vocals, with its chorus of “Feels good to be free,” pushes to a crescendo that seems written for a pulsating dance floor circa 1977.

The one drawback of the mixing approach is its haphazard quality; the tracks don’t bleed together as on a record album. Instead, each song feels like a stand-alone three-minute genre hit. The track “The Angels Hung Around” could conceivably get radio play on a contemporary country station, while the slightly less twangy, more rockish “Silver Lining” might get in the mix on a college station. On its breakout major-label album, Rilo Kiley sounds a bit like a band trying to break out in five different directions.

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