The mainstream press continues to write—with no subtle undercurrent of glee—about the woes of the recording industry. But if you put your ear to the ground and hold your breath, you can hear a gorgeous chord of hope ringing as crisply and clearly as the opening strum of “A Hard Day’s Night.”
As alarm bells ring in anticipation of a Christmas season where CD sales may ?nally bottom out, this year also offers a peek at new beginnings. For those who watch the Billboard
charts on a week-to-week basis, recent high-charting debuts from groups like The Shins, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse signal a sea change that’s brought some of the wittiest, edgiest and most organically satisfying artists to a level of accessibility and success otherwise barely imaginable in past eras, where the gloss and market blitz of disposable pop megastars inevitably overshadowed the quiet legions of journeyman bands evolving and slowly growing an audience through word-of-mouth, college radio and hard years on the road.
Of course, the juxtaposition of plastic pop acts and “sincere” indie-rockers is a canard, as the dichotomy is never so simple. Sometimes, even the glitziest pop acts are hard workers and sincere music lovers, and had long roads to “overnight success.” And the ?ags of purity, noble poverty, outsiderness and punk attitude that the more self-conscious denizens of the would-be indie underground tend to ?y is often riddled with the shreds and knots of hypocrisy. But these basic facts remain: Bands with members over or approaching 30, with complex songs, varied instrumentation, no Behind the Music melodrama and no obvious radio singles are able to hit doubles and triples commercially with little sensationalism these days, when a decade ago they would’ve been unlikely to get a solid at-bat. And they’re increasingly releasing records on major labels that would’ve had limited interest in the heydays hair metal, pop rap or boybands. We’re in an era where the Clever Indie Everyperson has reached a higher stratum of the cultural jetstream.
Los Angeles’ Rilo Kiley is a significant case in point. Only three full-length albums into their career, they’ve become low-gloss superstars within the rarified world of blogs, music magazines and left-of-the-dial radio, propelled by songs and an understated charisma. On the heels of More Adventurous, their first release distributed by Warner Bros., and a series of festival performances ranging from Glastonbury to Coachella, the band only increased its cachet by scattering to the winds long enough to pursue solo albums and other side projects that seeped deeper into the collective conscious. Guitarist/vocalist Blake Sennett renewed his work with The Elected, an elegant and underrated indie collective; bassist Pierre de Reeder did artwork and design for other artists (including Rilo Kiley vocalist Jenny Lewis) while writing his own songs and Lewis collaborated with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard in The Postal Service and released the excellent, country-tinged Rabbit Fur Coat with the Watson Twins, featuring Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel on the skins and Conor Oberst and Gibbard on guest vocals. The critical acclaim lavished on these albums has only served to raise expectations as Rilo Kiley prepares for the upcoming release of its fourth record, Under the Blacklight.
Like the other workmanlike lights of the rich, emerging indie-heading-mainstream tier (see also Spoon, Broken Social Scene, Neko Case and M. Ward), Rilo Kiley operates with intention and artistry, but isn’t performance art the way metal acts or Iggy Pop are. Rather, the band revitalizes the Laurel Canyon aesthetic, in which artists like Joni Mitchell and Stephen Stills churned out songs without their images hovering over them like a paisley veneer—at least until their talent created weighty expectations that their names and the occasional gossip inevitably began to cue.
The unofficial white elephant in the room when talking about Rilo Kiley is the sloppy thrall so many indie fanboys find themselves in when the faintest mention of Jenny Lewis is made. A former child actress (a topic well past its sell-by date in interviews), Lewis has been described as everything from that hip babysitter you fell in love with as an eight-year-old to a red-dress siren with piercing eyes and an angel voice. In person, Lewis has a casual coolness but also a quiet tenacity—looking straight ahead, concentrating on questions and giving direct, thought-out answers with the focus of an eager young overacheiver doing long division. While her songs have plainly stated sinews of sex and interpersonal intrigue that more frequently feel like universalist storytelling than necessary confessions, what’s mysterious about Jenny Lewis is how she contains unusual talent within the frame of an otherwise accessible personality. You can see scenarios race in her head while she barely cracks a smile—she casually quizzes me on what would happen if, for instance, the band refused my request to tape-record the interview. Lewis is one of those people whose essential restraint, stretched tight over clear inner complexity, makes her a sensation. You’ll probably never see her in a leather catsuit and high heels playing rock star, but don’t be surprised if she ultimately becomes known as an indie-rock Mona Lisa.
Co-writer and kindred spirit Blake Sennett is a more ethereal cat, thinking through his responses as he talks them out, exploring the space with a quizzical honesty that half feels like he might be putting you on until you look back at him and he gives you a nod to punctuate what he’s just said. He’s the more stereotypical songwriter of the two, the quiet kid who appears to be doodling in the margins on a pad in a train station—but when you step closer and glance over his shoulder, it turns out the sketch is a dazzlingly complex cityscape that pours over pages and could well be framed if it were ever deemed complete. In a light moment, with mock bravado and a chuckle, Blake describes his guitar style as “wiry lightning,” but there’s an honest, earned boast underneath. On Under the Blacklight there are scads of loopy funk-guitar gestures wrapped in wistful gauze. There’s a road-weary ambient openness to Sennett’s playing that feels like classic early-’70s California rock stretched through the space-age strainer of ’80s dream pop and distilled into tight little studio-polished crystals which are scattered constellation-like through the band’s songs without scuffing the surface glaze created by the creamy ?ow of Lewis’ singing. Still, in person, Sennett gazes and talks like a curious, arty child, even if he plays like an old soul.
For their part, Boesel and de Reeder have the easy patience and abundant humor of supporting players who might frequently be called upon to be voices of reason or clear second opinions. While Lewis admits to frequently writing on bass these days and playing the instrument live on occasion to allow de Reeder more time on the guitar, the versatility and punch of Rilo Kiley’s rhythm section is a marked feature of the new record, particularly on slinky surprise jam “The Moneymaker” (written by Lewis on bass) or the lightly Latin “Dejalo.”
Collectively, the band members’ demeanor is warm and congenial, as they alternate playing straight man to one another’s goofier asides. Over a late lunch in the concrete warrens of the fringes of West L.A., the banter is easy and open. Considering the politics of artistic evolution as they relate to fan expectations, Lewis earnestly but with gentle force says, “It’s great to allow a band that you like to grow and change. And I am relieved that we didn’t make The Execution of All Things over and over again: That’s impossible to do because we’re in a completely different place. But why? Why would you possibly want to keep making the same record over and over again?”
“Why, God, why?” wails Blake with a smirk.
Calmly ignoring the theatrics, Lewis completes the thought. “And we’re fully aware of what we’re doing, so there’s no puppetmaster.”
“Except maybe James Hetfield,” quips Jason Boesel.
So are Rilo Kiley quiet metalheads? “Primus is as close as I got,” admits Sennett, whose turntable these days instead features Guitars of the Golden Triangle V.2, the Ethiopiques series, Panda Bear, the Tom Tom Club and even the Grease soundtrack.
Musically, while they may shy from devil-horn gestures, Rilo Kiley intriguingly careens across the stylistic map. The country-caked ramble of Jenny’s solo work makes an appearance in spirit if not really instrumentation on certain songs from Rilo Kiley’s new album, but Under the Blacklight also contains dashes of Memphis soul (“15”), Swingin’ London ascot-pop (“Smoke Detector”) and Talking Heads pan-synthery anthem-for-the-suddenly-single (“Breakin’ Up”), as well as dashes of funk and unvarnished modern rock.
Blacklight is a kinetic departure for the band, both in process and result. “On a lot of these songs, we didn’t have proximity to each other ... we were apart,” explains Sennett, “so we didn’t really work them out as a band like a lot of our previous records. With this one, we discovered the songs, a lot of times, in the studio or the day before we went into the studio, and that changes the approach and the production compared to songs and arrangements you’re already familiar with. So, in that way, it was kind of a learning experience and a bit of an adventure.”
Boesel also adds that there were fewer time constraints than normal, allowing for more open experimentation: “We were able to go in for a couple of weeks and see what happens, go back for a little while, go in for another couple of weeks and then see what happens.”
Having spent plenty of time on the road with the aforementioned side projects has also renewed the novelty of Rilo Kiley for its members. "It was definitely the longest break we’ve ever had as a band. Typically, the other records that we’ve recorded in the past, outside of Rilo Kiley, have gone on simultaneously with our own touring and recording.”
The band members then debate how long it’s been since they’ve toured together versus played together versus recorded together and the consensus emerges that, however the hiatus is defined, it’s been longer than any they’ve ever spelled out on paper for themselves. Sennett notes, “For me, it was kind of refreshing to come back to Rilo Kiley. When you tour for a record, by the end of the touring cycle, my experience is that you’ve kind of had enough of playing those songs, and it’s exciting to get to change channels and be with Rilo Kiley again.”
When brought back to the issue of Rilo Kiley’s musical antecedents and scope, Lewis suggests that certain songs do feature a world-music ?avor (the aforementioned "Dejalo," in particular) “but maybe that’s more of a Steely Dan thing,” she says.
Blake counters “I have to be honest, I don’t like Steely Dan, but I did listen to them because we were talking about them for that song, so I just listened to Aja front-to-back.” The similarity is noteworthy if incidental. Taking jazz and a ’60s approach to songwriting and fusing them in a radio-friendly cocktail, Steely Dan were polished syncretists in a way that may not differ much from Rilo Kiley, whose net sweeps a bit broader but whose fusion seems similarly effortless.
This broadness becomes apparent when I ask what artist they’d like to hear cover a Rilo Kiley song. “Kelly Clarkson on ‘I Never’,” Lewis muses. “To hear someone truly belt that song would be cool. I know, that’s not the coolest choice.”
Sennett grooves on it for a second and then adds, “I’d Like to hear Horace Andy do ‘Silver Lining’ the original way.” From Kelly Clarkson to deep reggae and all points in between, Rilo Kiley seems open to every possibility.
In both its range and unassuming persona, Rilo Kiley is, as much as anyone else, indicative of this special (and, frankly, thrilling) moment in time when music is beginning to outpace its trappings. “It’s nice. It’s sweet to be living in a time and making a record at a moment when bands like ours are being more embraced,” says Sennett. And for its part, Under the Blacklight rises to whatever challenge the band’s increased profile might offer—the album’s 11 songs reel off a variety of moods in tantalizingly quick succession, all of them catching odd corners of your ear as they ease by. It’s a record that has a dose of simple joy and a dash of risk-taking (particularly lyrically) without insisting on itself so much as to burden you with its gestures, resulting in a listen that’s both rich and gentle—complex music made simple in its elegance. Much like the band that made it.