Rilo Kiley is on an ascent. It's one that may take them from cult status all the way to the big leagues, as far as the music industry is concerned. With a critically acclaimed new album on the streets and a major label backing them, now is a telling time for these former indie icons trying to navigate unfamiliar territory.
Then again, Rilo Kiley is accustomed to the roller-coaster ride accorded by showbiz... or, for that matter, drama in general. The band's two principals and cofounders, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, are, after all, former child actors (mostly on television shows like, for her, Roseanne and Pleasantville and, for him, Family Ties and Third Rock From the Sun). When they released their aptly titled debut, Take Offs and Landings, in 2001, their relationship was both personal and professional. But by the time the group — which includes drummer Jason Boesel and bassist Pierre de Reeder — released The Execution of All Things a year later, Lewis and Sennett's romance was on the rocks. Still, the music remained as indelible as ever. Their effusive melodies, iridescent arrangements, and an uncanny ability to cross the divide from brash, bubbly indie pop to edgy Americana to Lewis' teary-eyed torch songs put them in the same league as Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, and a handful of other indie outfits whose musical charms seemed ready-made for mass consumption.
Although their third album, More Adventurous, was distributed by Warner Bros. in 2004, its follow-up, Under the Blacklight, found them actually recording on a major company contract. Still, reaching the masses via a juggernaut label like Warner can bring about a moment of reckoning and, for some bands, even a crisis of conscience. Does accepting the helping hand of a big-time, multinational conglomerate also mean sacrificing independence and integrity for the sake of a hit?
"I see that all the time, and at times, we struggled with it ourselves," Boesel confides via phone from Chicago. "It's a tough thing in any artistic profession to make that leap to the masses. It can be uncomfortable to expose yourself to so many more people. I think major labels keep going for that. But I also think major labels are no longer equated with big huge record sales anymore. Look at Arcade Fire. They aren't on a major label, but they're selling tons of records.
Still, one has to wonder if the record-company suits tried to tamper with the band's pop precepts, perhaps even coercing it into crafting something commercial enough to compete with Justin, Fergie, or any of those other formula-fueled acts dominating the charts these days.
"I think there are certain artists that experience that, and I guess there are artists signed to labels under a different pretense," Boesel reasons. "But we came to the label with a track history and a pretty decent-sized fan base. So they kind of took us on for what we were and just let us make the record we wanted to make."
Boesel is adamant that, despite its sound, Under the Blacklight wasn't conceived with a major label in mind. "I don't think it had an overall effect [on] what we were doing in the studio," he asserts. "It was a personal choice on the band's part. We had more freedom, believe it or not... to be in the studio longer and try things we wanted to do, switch producers or not switch producers halfway through... all things I don't think we would have felt comfortable doing if we were on a smaller label, monetarily speaking."
Boesel's denials aside, Under the Blacklight does bear the sound of a major-label opus, given its glossy arrangements, catchy hooks, and ready refrains. Songs such as "Silver Lining," "The Angels Hung Around," and "Close Call" as well as the title track draw obvious references to such radio-ready templates as Fleetwood Mac, Heart, and the Eagles, given Rilo's preoccupation with Southern California '70s soft-rock sensibilities. Other tracks, "The Moneymaker" and "Dejalo" in particular, recall the L.A. new wave sound of the Motels and Missing Persons, circa the same era.
"We just kind of went after those sounds and had fun doing it," Boesel says. "We kind of referenced all these records that we loved, like Fleetwood Mac. Their albums were extremely glossy. We just kind of liked the way that stuff sounded and wanted to explore it."
Inevitably, though, some fans see the band's ambitions as evidence that it's selling out. Mixed reviews followed the album as well, with everyone from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone taking small jabs at the band for its well-financed sound. It's a complaint Boesel is aware of.
One thing all can agree on is that Rilo Kiley's music remains rife with sexual tension. That's especially evident in such songs as "Breakin' Up" and "15" from the new album and earlier outpourings like "Does He Love You," "Love and War," and "My Slumbering Heart." Much like their heroes Fleetwood Mac, Lewis and Sennett have rarely shied from sharing their romantic wreckage with listeners. Each has also recorded outside the band — Lewis with the Watson Sisters and Sennett under the aegis of the Elected — which might make things uncomfortable for their colleagues.
"Yeah," Boesel says. "When I first started in the band, they had just broken up, so that's inherently awkward. To get out of a relationship and then be forced to tour with that person for like a year... It's strange, but the nature of their relationship is strange. It wouldn't allow them to be together, but it also allows them to spend a lot of time with each other. Personally, I don't think anyone really wants to hang out with their ex."
So does it ever get weird? "It's not too bad," Boesel says. "Pierre and I just sort of stay out of it. They have their issues that they work out, and we kind of just let them go. It works out well."
As have the band's fortunes. With the attention Under the Blacklight has garnered from its first week of release, it appears expectations have definitely been heightened. "Yeah, I think there's a feeling — just with all the press and stuff like that," Boesel observes. "Certain aspects are definitely exciting, but it's not like overnight there's 100,000 people at every show. It's definitely always been a gradual climb, but I think that this record is a definite ascension."
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