Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklights
I have long held a wary ambivalence towards Rilo Kiley. On the one hand, there's something rather disturbingly disingenuous about them, not necessarily pre-fab so much as premeditated in a way that seems almost calculated in terms of its ability to present an image of exactly what a female-fronted indie rock band should look and sound like in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Not a lot of originality on display - not perhaps a cardinal sin considering how many great bands have been stylistically redundant, but Rilo Kiley lack the brio to really set them apart. It doesn't help that Jenny Lewis presents herself in a slightly uncomfortable fashion, playing up the most questionable aspects of the male indie-rock fan's passive-aggressive attitude towards female sex objects. Clad in baby-girl dresses, striking a sensitive songwriter pose with a come-hither woe-is-me pout plastered firmly on her mug, it's a remarkably unattractive and frankly manipulative image. Why is it, I ask, that folks like PJ Harvey or Neko Case or Cat Power can strike a sexy pose without really compromising their integrity, but every time I see Jenny Lewis I cringe a little?
But then . . . I really like Rabbit Fur Coat. Jenny Lewis can write a fine song when the mood strikes her. I am not sure I really understand how country music has become synonymous with indie rock credibility this past decade - the corn-pone twangy shit is not really something I care for, but it seems like a whole generation of modern rockers associate pedal slide guitar and second-hand rural fetishizing with authenticity - see, Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams, Calexico. Annoying, is all I can say. As much as I love Neko Case, it's still a struggle for me to really get behind anything done in the country idiom - I can't quite shake the negative associations I had growing up in a country music enclave in rural northern California - that's the "heartland" music I know, and every time I hear a softly-strumemd acoustic guitar twanging up the joint, that's what I see in my mind's eye. Not a lot of room for cozy down-home sentiment.
But I digress! I liked Rabbit Fur Coat (I mean, seriously, how could I not like country songs about atheism?), and despite my reservations I was interested enough in Under the Blacklights to take the plunge when I saw it on sale at Best Buy. I'm glad I did: it's by no means a perfect album, but it's a good album that somehow manages to directly address some of my past misgivings without wholly succeeding. Jenny Lewis has advanced from being a fresh-faced ingénue to some kind of dark sex-goddess - it's a wholly unconvincing and somewhat comical transformation. Some folks can pull it off, some can't. (I mean, seriously, she still looks about twelve. Maybe that's a turn on for some folks.) But all the same the songs directly speak to the more unpleasant aspects of sexuality that have occasionally surfaced in and around her music. Again, it has something of a precocious feel, like play-acting - but that doesn't really hurt the music itself. It sounds like a teenager's idea of what the darker side of sex and lust feels like, and there's something almost refreshing about the idea, like a group of Mormon home-school kids trying to skim the Mötley Crüe fakebook. I shouldn't probably enjoy it as much as I do, but I like it. (For added skeeze factor, read this month's SPIN cover story on the band - I can't remember the last time I saw a band so obviously demoralized by their frontwoman's success. The other dudes in Rilo Kiley are hoping for dear life that Under the Blacklights takes off because if Jenny Lewis goes her way they're back to working the night shift at the Circle K. Great band dynamic!)
The New Pornographers - Challengers
Speaking of your difficult band dynamic...
I love the New Pornographers, I really do. But here's a great example of a band whose entire career to this point is predicated on the involvement of someone who could best be described as disinterested, i.e. Neko Case. She's the best songwriter in the group but she doesn't contribute songs to the group. She tours with the group . . . sometimes. They've got a substitute chick singer to fill in for her when she's busy. She's one classy dame and I doubt she'd contribute to the group at all if she didn't enjoy it - but still, the fact remains, her personal appeal and magnetism outweigh everyone else in the group by about 1000 to one.
There doesn't seem to be as much Neko on Challengers as there was on Twin Cinema. I'll stand by the latter as one of the best pure power-pop albums of the decade, instantly accessible and consistently enjoyable even two years on. This is something much quieter . . . the overriding touchstone here appears to be Fleetwood Mack, of all things, with quiet songs about heartbreak balanced with discrete measures of black humor and lilting harmonies. It's not a straight analogy, but it's there. I have to admit I've been listening to the album for over a week now and I still can't wrap my head around it. It's a step out on a limb for the band, I can see that, away from their comfort zone and into darker territory. Successful? Probably not entirely. But still appealing enough to command repeated listenings.
Recoil - Subhuman
Be honest, were you expecting another Recoil album? If you like Recoil, this is exactly what you are looking for. Sort of like The The remixed by UNKLE with tiny bits of the Cocteau Twins and Jarvis Cocker. I've only got to listen to it a couple times so far, but it seems like a keeper.