A bit of background: although I enjoy Rilo Kiley's music, I've never been a huge fan. They are a nice little indie band that does quirk and usually does it fairly well. I have several of their albums, but I haven't listened to them much recently.
The first time I heard their most recent album, "Under the Blacklight", I was turned off pretty quickly and ended up deleting it from my hard drive. From that first impression, it seemed clear that they had decided to jettison everything intimate and quirky about their sound in an effort to make it big in the mainstream, and I found the results lacking.
As for Jenny Lewis, I enjoyed her first album under her own name, thought it was a nice change of pace, but, again, I didn't think it was anything earth-shattering. It seemed more like Neko Case-lite with a girl group spin. It's one of those albums that I appreciate but never listened to that much or that often. However, when her second album, "Acid Tongue", came out, I listened to a few samples and was immediately hooked. I bought it pretty promptly and it's not only in heavy rotation, it's easily one of my most favorite albums of the year.
After listening to Acid Tongue a few dozen times, I started wondering if I had written off Under the Blacklight unfairly, so I decided to give it another spin and see if there were any hidden gems I missed the first time around. To make a long story short, there are definitely some pretty amazing songs on the album, but they're the exception to the rule. Although my first impression was harsh, it wasn't too far off base.
The best song on the album is Close Call, the second track. It's got a good hook and a really catchy chorus. Even though it isn't that stylistically different from the rest of the album, its one of the few places where the different elements the band is working with here actually gel into a cohesive whole. I also like the first track, Silver Lining, even though it sounds like a Jenny Lewis solo song fighting to get out of a traditional Rilo Kiley arrangement.
The most consistent stylistic elements throughout the album are robotic drums (drum machines or otherwise), new-wave synths and a band taking itself way too seriously. Interestingly enough, the robotic drums and new wave synths have always been a big part of their sound, but in their earlier work it sounded more like a teenage girl recording cynical ballads in her bedroom with a drum machine. Not in a bad way, mind you, but the songs sounded smaller, more intimate and less self-consciously "mature". Lyrically, the subjects were far more mundane and/or knowingly quirky. They had the new-wave style without turning into something inorganic.
Almost the entire first half of their newest album seems to be trying to prove that they are, in fact, a serious band ready for the big leagues. Mostly, they just sound like they need to relax. Most of the songs have a chilly, distant atmosphere, which works well in small doses (Close Call), but just seems overwrought after four or five tracks. There's a crucial point in the album about 6 songs in where I've wanted to turn it off almost every time. When I'm in an album-listening mood, I don't like skipping tracks, so if a song gets on my nerves, I'm more likely to never hear the rest of the album after that. Today I made myself keep listening, and I have to admit that the album continued getting on my nerves.
It's kind of amazing how stark the difference is between Lewis' solo stuff and her work with the band. Where Rilo Kiley has become more inorganic and stilted, Lewis' second solo album feels organic, warm, lived in and vibrant. Apparently the recordings were all perfected on tour and recorded live, and it shows. Ironically, Lewis is more cohesive with the rotating cast of characters serving as her solo bandmates than she is with her ostensible mainstream gig.
Solo albums are kind of a strange animal. They're oftentimes nothing more than experimental detours or egotistical failures. It's a rare case where a solo album is this much better than an artist's work with their actual band. Considering how much her solo work has grown by leaps and bounds, I would be very surprised if Rilo Kiley has another album in them. At this point, they're doing nothing more than holding her back.