Blake Sennett has earned the right to be grumpy. Over the course of the last decade, the Rilo Kiley songwriter/guitarist watched as the band that he co-founded with former girlfriend Jenny Lewis gradually turned into a star vehicle for the comely Lewis before dissolving acrimoniously. By the time the band released the vapid Fleetwood Mac homage Under the Blacklight in 2007, Sennett had been relegated to the role of sideman and his band bore little resemblance to the quirky indie pop project he’d started several years earlier. Sennett has been stepping out on his own with the ramshackle, countrified the Elected since 2003, yet Lewis seemed to constantly one-up his solo projects. She’s had Elvis Costello following her around like an infatuated schoolboy for a good while now, and her latest project, Jenny and Johnny, spent time on the road supporting a reunited Pavement.
Sennett retired from the music business for a spell following the still unofficial Rilo Kiley split, and the time away apparently did a boy some good. From the sound of the Elected’s breezy Bury Me in My Rings, Sennett chased away his sorrows on some Malibu beach, frosty beverage firmly in hand. Working with an ace supporting cast that includes Rilo drummer Jason Boesel and esteemed Bright Eyes guitarist/producer Mike Mogis, Sennett almost completely jettisons the alt-country leanings of earlier Elected albums in favor of glossy ‘80s yacht rock. The change in scenery is jarring at first, yet Sennett has an impeccable ear for melodyand a firm handle on the source material. In trying to distance himself from his former band, Sennett has come up with a satisfying version of the album that Lewis tried, and failed, to create with Under the Blacklight.
Sennett may still harbor a lot of animosity, yet on this go around he’s learned to mostly shrug it off with a sarcastic smile. He kicks off the album with the sun soaked “Born to Love You”, on which he sings “I was born to love you, love you / And I’ll love you even if you’re with someone new”. Hey, at least the guy isn’t a sore loser! Sennett spent years writing for Lewis, and he takes a few thinly veiled shots at his former partner on the handful of kiss-off songs that appear here. The gang vocal-propelled “Go for the Throat” takes jabs like “So it’s the long face, nothing but dead eyes / I couldn’t miss them if I tried”. The symphonic ‘60s girl group pop of “Have You Been Cheated” practically begs for Lewis’s alto. Instead, Sennett is left to drop lines like “You may not know what you are, but you know what you’ve done / And now you’re back out on the road havin’ fun” by his lonesome.
Still, Sennett is too Californian to wallow in bitterness and self-pity. While he channels the late Elliott Smith on tracks like the weeping, string-laden “See the Light” (this is not a comparison made lightly), his main concern is crafting the sort of feel good music that demands to be listened to while driving up the 101 with the windows rolled down. The insufferably catchy “Babyface” sounds like it dropped in on us from the summer of ’87, while the ukulele- and lap steel-accented “Trip ‘Round the World” easily conjures images of palm tree-lined Hawaiian beaches. Rilo Kiley’s best songs got an essential yet largely unacknowledged boost from Sennett’s tastefully explosive guitar playing. Here, he gets let’s himself indulge his rock n’ roll fantasies, tipping his cap to Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” (right down the echoing vocals) on the six-minute show stopper “This Will Be Worth It”. Elsewhere, he throws down some sleazy funk on “When I’m Gone” like only someone from the sunshine state knows how.
Bury Me in My Rings doesn’t exactly plow new sonic territory, yet it’s a perfect album to listen to for a few weeks during the summer and then completely forget about until next year. It’s a finely etched pop album that should hopefully bring Blake Sennett some long overdue attention.