I gotta tail if you wanna chase it
I gotta tongue if you wanna taste it
I gotta place on the East Side
I got some time if you wanna…
According to both Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, Rilo Kiley had between 20 and 25 songs at hand when they came to select the eleven that appear on Under the Blacklight, the band’s first new album in just over three years. The 14 they rejected must have been absolutely terrible. Unless, of course, the ex-child star collective was trying to make some sort of conceptual point with their first full-on major label release.
My secret theory (shhh!) is that Under the Blacklight is indeed some sort of undeclared concept album, constructed on an indie-sophisticate’s tongue-in-cheek revision of ‘70s pop and ‘80s AOR and ladled with lashings of less than whip-smart sleaze. Certainly, hardcore indie-elitists can rest easy tonight. The only way a song from Under the Blacklight is ever going to grace the next season of Grey’s Anatomy is if Shonda Rhimes introduces an Izzy-Callie-George three-way involving rope and cigarette burns. Or if Dr. Derek Shepherd reveals a hitherto unexpected taste for chicken: McSleazy.
While none of Rilo Kiley’s earlier works has ever been cohesive enough to sweep me entirely off my feet, Under the Blacklight is endlessly less interesting than any of its predecessors. As with More Adventurous, it’s very much a showcase for the wit, wisdom, and vocal stylings of Ms Jenny Lewis, but this time the execution is predominantly awkward and often downright tiresome. Entirely missing the complex lengthy lyricism of her best work, Lewis’s new songs rely on brevity, borrowed beats, and a pretty girl’s conceit that everyone will be as fascinated as she is by her unconvincing tales from the seamy side of life.
She sleeps on your right side.
She gets nailed, I get tied.
I sleep on your left side.
Hundred ways to keep love alive.
Rilo Kiley have trodden this path before. They’ve regularly explored the darker sides of love and life. But Under the Blacklight is unforgivably unthinking, graceless, and heavy-handed in its celebrations of big city decadence. Similarly, it’s not intrinsically bad to honour your musical influences, and Rilo Kiley have frequently done so to excellent effect. The glorious “Portions for Foxes”, for example, borrowed heavily from Altered Images. Under the Blacklight, however, utterly abuses its record-library privileges. Pick a song, any song. Does that guitar sound a lot like George Harrison’s? Does that infuriatingly catchy rhythm simply scream out Robert Smith? Can you hear an abundance of Rock Babes, Soul Queens, Fleetwood Mac, or Debbie Harry in those grooves? Of course, you can. My only disappointment was that I could find no trace of Sade, Whitney, Luther Vandross, or T’Pau.
Lewis, naturally, is in generally fine voice throughout. But her lyrics are so poor that many of her best contributions come when she throws herself into the wordless trills and flourishes that enliven pieces such as “Moneymaker” and “Close Call”. And sadly, sometimes she’s not even close to the money. “15”, for example, is what happens when Dusty Springfield goes to Memphis, develops emphysema, and labouring under the effects of her over-prescribed theophylline mistakenly believes that a song about the abuse of a 15 year old girl is both inherently clever and exceedingly well written. Sadly, it’s neither. Nor is it well sung.
Fortunately, there are better moments here. The two best songs both shun the kitsch that otherwise dominates and instead continue Lewis’s long-lasting love affair with country music. The title track is a simple and beautiful song that may (or may not) detail Lewis’s fantasy of murdering Sennett down on the banks of the Rio Grande. Meanwhile “The Angels Hung Around” reads like an out-take or leftover from Rabbit Fur Coat. Recalling that album’s cover of “Handle with Care”, “The Angels Hung Around” is also deeply redolent of the emotional charge at the heart of Lucinda Williams’ album Sweet Old World.
Beyond these two stand-outs, there are other moments when the quality of Rilo Kiley’s performance and the expense of the production combine to overshadow the paucity of their material. “Silver Lining”, “Close Call”, and “Moneymaker” will probably all join “Under the Blacklight” and “The Angels Hung Around” on my iPod. “Breakin’ Up”, a lacklustre disco romp with an undeniably intoxicating chorus, probably won’t. Ditto “Dejalo”, which takes the early Miami Sound Machine to Studio 54 on fetish night and gets Gloria M completely wasted.
I just can’t make my mind up about “Smoke Detector”. Superficially a dance craze anthem that sees Blondie taking on the Beatles with a $10 distortion pedal, “Smoke Detector” looks back towards previous period pieces such as “Frug” and “Teenage Love Song”, and fills the air with entendres that are so very single-minded Caligula would’ve fainted dead away.
Remarkably, Under the Blacklight‘s final song is also its very worst. “Give a Little Love” is the sort of sub-innocuous pap that wouldn’t even get an ‘80s pop starlet a gig in an outlet mall in West Texas. If I one day read an interview with Jenny Lewis explaining that that “Give a Little Love” actually wraps up the entire Under the Blacklight concept in some stunningly clever and massively significant manner, then I will consider myself forever Whooshed. Since I like to think the best of people I value, I’d love to believe there really is some coherent secret narrative and sense of purpose here. But all I see is a messy set of songs caught up in a fruitless search for some kind of thematic self-justification. If Under the Blacklight really was a concept album, then the concept was irretrievably flawed. And, based on the obsessions she delights in here, if there’s anything at all in Jenny Lewis’s cheek, it’s probably not her tongue.