Under the Blacklight is less of a major label debut for indie-poppers Rilo Kiley than it is a coming out party. Partly produced by Extraordinary Machine‘s Mike Elizondo, the album has an even cleaner and radio-friendly sound than Elizondo’s revision of Jon Brion’s original Machine. But lest fans cry sell-out, the friendliness could not be better suited for this project, a 38-minute-long love letter to FM radio of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There’s been a lot of pastiche in the air these days—Lucky Soul and The Pipettes’ revamps of ‘60s girl groups, for instance—but the homage seems more like a natural transition for Rilo Kiley than an affect.
Rilo Kiley’s Saddle Creek folk always felt like an efficient but not necessarily passionate vehicle for their hooks and melodies; an over-the-top Fleetwood Mac tribute (“Dreamworld” sounds so much like a Christine McVie tune that she could probably sue) is a much better arena for their ideas and for frontwoman Jenny Lewis’s cuteness and sass. Other than Fleetwood Mac, the band seems to take cues from Blondie, Dusty Springfield, and even Gloria Estefan on “The Moneymaker” and “Breakin’ Up,” “15,” and the bilingual salsa song “Dejalo,” respectively. If there’s a unifying motif on the record, it’s guitarist Blake Sennett’s discovery of disco; his static-y leads tend to punctuate the arrangements, rather than shape them. Only “The Angels Hung Around” shows the band’s open-chord country roots, and it seems more like an extension of Lewis’s work on her solo record Rabbit Fur Coat anyway.
Some of these genre shifts work better than others, of course, but the record is so tightly constructed that nothing ever crashes and burns. The back-up singers on the awesome opener “Silver Lining” serve Lewis as well as the Watson Twins did on Rabbit Fur Coat; Lewis doesn’t have an extraordinary voice, but she has personality in spades (which definitely can’t be said for Sennett’s lifeless reading of “Dreamworld”). Even when she over-flexes her pipes, like on the shimmery, Kate Bush-esque interludes of “Close Call,” Lewis is supported by crystalline production and well-placed frills. Ironically, by playing it so safe, Rilo Kiley is indulging more than they ever have before.
Perhaps befitting a record that takes its sound from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Lewis continues to indulge her lyrical obsession with the tawdry: Both “Close Call” and “Moneymaker” depict prostitution, and the Dusty in Memphis white-girl soul number “15” rather graphically narrates a tale of consensual statutory rape (“She was bruised like a cherry, ripe as a peach”). I’m not a prude (would I be writing for Slant if I were?), but a cursory glance at the band’s MySpace page shows their fanbase is largely, maybe even mostly, 15-year-old girls. Granted, kids hear much worse, but the marriage of Lewis’s former-child-star cuteness with sleazy subject matter strikes me as a little…icky. It might strike others as daring. Those listeners may find Blacklight to be more than just Rilo Kiley’s strongest record to date—they may deem it damn well near a masterpiece.