- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

Los Angeles indie-pop quartet Rilo Kiley has been engaged in a relentless bout of fisticuffs with indie rock snobs. It all started with seduction, as this kind of thing so often does.

Blame it on red-hot redheaded lead singer Jenny Lewis, the “indie pinup” whose quirky lyrics melt any ice that her honeyed voice doesn’t. Or finger the sometimes catchy, sometimes affecting and almost always intelligent folk-pop she and her band mates had been distributing since the group’s late-‘90s inception. (Listen to 2001’s “Take Offs and Landings” and 2002’s “The Execution of All Things.”) Whatever the reasons, indie rock snobs fell in love. Sigh.

Then Rilo Kiley did what so many up-and-coming bands these days do and lent a few tracks to the teen drama “Dawson’s Creek.” Then “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then “Grey’s Anatomy.” And the list goes on.

The indie snobs cried foul: If a song falls in the mass-media forest and everyone is around to hear it, was it really indie to begin with? As Miss Lewis and crew (co-writer-guitarist Blake Sennett, bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Jason Boesel) climbed the record-label ladder from indie imprints Barsuk and Saddle Creek to major mama Warner Bros., so climbed their production values. The band began to expand its stylistic repertoire, polish some of the rough edges and push Miss Lewis more to the fore.

Fittingly, the group’s third album (released in 2004 and distributed by Warner Bros.) was titled “More Adventurous.” In the title track, the chanteuse coos, “I read with every broken heart we should become more adventurous.”

On the surface, it’s a poetically optimistic line about healing love’s wounds — but it could pass easily for a word of advice aimed at listeners: Don’t let your prejudices prevent you from opening your mind, your ears. Don’t let the fact that this album landed at No. 7 on the Heatseekers chart scare you out of professing your love for it. (For the record, critics loved the disc.)

Following a series of successful solo and side projects (Miss Lewis’ “Rabbit Fur Coat,” Mr. Sennett’s work with the Elected, etc.) Rilo Kiley returned in August to challenge the snobs as never before with “Under the Blacklight,” the band’s proper major-label debut.

“Fans should expect to listen less and feel more” on this album, Mr. Boesel said in an early August interview. Translated, this means pared-down narrative and rootsy vibe and played-up beats and pop aesthetic.

Here’s a sampling of tracks: “The Moneymaker” sleazily crawls through a sex-for-sale world, employing a disco-funk riff not all that dissimilar from David Bowie’s “Fame.” “Give a Little Love” (a bit of a misstep) sounds like Cathy Dennis doing R&B.; “Dreamworld” glides through Fleetwood Mac territory.

“From the onset of this, we certainly did not want to repeat ourselves musically or otherwise,” Mr. de Reeder says. “We kind of set off in the direction of a more body-moving, more groovy of a record.” The album “ends up being a little more poppy,” he admits — but that doesn’t mean listeners should assume it’s fluff.

“Some of the stuff certainly comes across a little lighter in tone, but lyrically, it’s certainly not,” he says. “Actually, it’s perhaps the darkest of our records.” The shadows he’s referring to lurk, among other places, in the dancey “Moneymaker” and midtempo “Close Call.” The songs reveal shady corners where bodies and dreams are traded, and Miss Lewis reports live from the scene.

Selling one’s self is a particularly interesting theme for the band to tackle at this juncture, given that this is its highest-profile album to date and well on its way to becoming its highest-grossing. (It debuted at No. 22.) Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that Rilo Kiley is trying to pull one over on us — that “Blacklight” is, in effect, a send-up of modern-day pop music.

Mr. de Reeder dismisses this, saying, “We only make the music we make at the moment. It’s been a few years since we made the last record. Obviously things change. You hope people will go on that journey with you.” Rilo Kiley is trekking across the states, riding the waves of indie rock controversy and racking up new accomplishments — including the cover of this month’s Spin magazine.

Used to playing sold-out shows now, Mr. de Reeder recalls a time when staff members at the venues they had booked outnumbered the concertgoers. The foursome may have sold out their upcoming dates at the 9:30 Club (www.930.com) on Wednesday and Thursday, but just five years ago, the band rocked out for a whopping 12 people at a much smaller Washington venue.

“It was after our first record when we just went around in a van; we were happy to even get 12 to show up,” Mr. de Reeder says. “Those are certainly fond memories, just struggling along as all bands do who really want to make a go of it.” The indie rock snobs may remember those as the band’s glory days as well — but Rilo Kiley isn’t giving much weight to the opinions of a few elitists.

“We all make the music we choose,” Mr. de Reeder says.

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