RILO KILEY with JONATHAN RICE and the GRAND OLE PARTY at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Tuesday (September 18), 8 pm. $21.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
For indie rock darlings like Rilo Kiley, nothing stirs up controversy quite like releasing an album polished for mainstream pop radio. Short of singer Jenny Lewis confessing that she always hated Dawson's Creek, they couldn't have polarized their audience more effectively than by releasing Under The Blacklight (Warner).
While the group's employment of heavy-handed hooks over-repeated phrases, simple riffs, handclaps, etc has some critics crying major label sellout, others see the new album's tighter grooves and lack of acoustic twang as progress.
In any case, the changes heard on Under The Blacklight are less a direct consequence of their signing to Warner (their deal was already in place for 2004's More Adventurous, which was manufactured and distributed by Warner but issued on the indie-look Brute/Beaute imprint as a marketing ruse) than they are of their collaboration with Dr. Dre's right-hand man, producer/bassist Mike Elizondo. He co-wrote and co-produced million-sellers for Eminem and 50 Cent and works with a wide range of hit-makers from Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes to Pink and Fiona Apple.
"Many people, including myself, hate change," reasons drummer Jason Boesel during a day off in beautiful Boise, Idaho, "so I can understand why some people would be down on the new album.
"The record has definitely created two strong camps of radically differing views. I've had one journalist tell me it was his favourite record of the last five years. It's difficult for me to gauge one way or the other, but I haven't noticed any changes in our audience."
In general, I'm not in favour of the old-school record biz strategy of dumbing down for broader appeal, and it doesn't seem like a wise move for the relatively bright folks in Rilo Kiley.
Yet I can understand their reluctance to try remaking 2002's The Execution Of All Things (Saddle Creek) no matter how beloved and not just because the album coincided with the breakup of Lewis's relationship with guitarist Blake Sennett.
The country elements of that album can be found on Lewis's solo disc, Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love), with the indie slack being picked up by the Elected side project of Sennett and Boesel.
So where does that leave Rilo Kiley for Under The Blacklight? Well, apart from Sennett's lone song contribution, Dreamworld, which carries such a strong Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks vibe that you'd think it came straight off of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and the weirdly Madonnaesque Dejalo, on which emcee Lewis bites Debbie Harry's quirky cadence, the big inspiration on a conceptual level was Talking Heads splinter group the Tom Tom Club.
The Club's rhythm-driven approach, compositional structures and production values provided the road map for Rilo Kiley's new direction. You can thank or blame Elizondo for that.
"We were all vaguely familiar with the Tom Tom Club's hits, but it wasn't until we listened to their albums as a group along with Mike that they became a big influence on the album. They did some amazing stuff so crazy danceable. At first, the songs seem monotonous, yet there are always subtle things happening you discover when you listen more closely.
"Mike, being a bass player and having a deep background in hiphop, has a highly developed rhythmic sense, so he helped us hone our grooves to be as danceable as possible. To do that required a top-to-bottom simplification of everything we were doing, lyrics included. It's not widely known, but Jenny was a big hiphop fan in her teens, and for a couple of years that's all she listened to.
"If she has a cool rhyme flow, it's there in her head somewhere."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel explains that the new approach to recording Under the Blacklight has its good and bad points
According to Boesel, the group member who most benefitted from the change in studio aesthetic was Lindsey Buckingham - inspired guitarist Blake Sennett