Critical favorites are back with new discs
Rilo Kiley”Under the Blacklight,” Warner Bros.It’s a bid for the big time, no question, but Rilo Kiley seems confused on its latest about the difference between sincere and slick.Although “Under the Blacklight” is almost entirely about sex, it’s never sexy. That’s by design, as singer Jenny Lewis explores the seamier side of Los Angeles from the perspective of different dysfunctional characters: a porn actress on “The Moneymaker,” a hooker on “Close Call” and an underage Internet vixen on “15.” The musical style even changes, depending on the narrator, which is an intriguing stab at creating distinctive story songs. The execution, however, is a disaster.These over-produced tunes are mostly an ironic patchwork of recycled ’80s sounds, good for little more than playing spot-the-source. That’s the Cars on “The Moneymaker,” and Gloria Estefan on “Dejalo” (though the pidgin-Spanish accent is all Lewis ).
There are bright spots: A country-tinged heart beats beneath “The Angels Hung Around,” and opener “Silver Lining” recaptures the soulful streak that ran through “More Adventurous,” the band’s excellent 2005 breakthrough.Lewis started becoming the face of Rilo Kiley on “More Adventurous,” and she’s clearly in control here. Guitarist Blake Sennett, once her co-leader, co-wrote only two songs on “Under the Blacklight ” and sings just one, “Dreamworld.” That’s not necessarily bad – Lewis has tons of charisma – but it’s a shame the shift in focus coincides with an album so superficial that her characters’ hollow-eyed come-ons seem genuine by comparison.- Eric R. DantonThe New Pornographers”Challengers,” Matador
For all the frenetic tempos, sweeping hooks and colorful tangles of vocal harmony, there was a chilliness to the New Pornographers’ early music, al though it didn’t matter much – you were never going to get “The Laws Have Changed” out of your head anyway.Yet the band started warming up on 2005’s “Twin Cinema,” and the emotion continues on “Challengers,” the group’s fourth and most nuanced album. Lead songwriter A.C. Newman is in a contemplative mood here as he reflects obliquely on New York after moving from Vancouver, British Columbia . Although the hooks and harmonies remain, many of the songs have softer edges, and the band makes greater use of acoustic instruments, especially the subtle mix of strings on “Adventures in Solitude.”Newman has a keen sense of who should sing what, and his assignments are unerring: Neko Case performs with restraint on the waltz-time “Go Places,” newest Pornographer Kathryn Calder (Newman’s niece) imparts ethereal grace over stuttering electric guitar on “Failsafe,” and Newman takes the lead on the subdued rocker “My Rights Versus Yours.” Dan Bejar, the band’s other writer, sings his tunes, including “Myriad Harbour,” an oddball call-and-response, and “Entering White Cecilia,” about seduction or, possibly, stealing a boat.Whatever it’s about – whatever any of them are about – the songs on “Challengers” live up to a certain essential challenge: They’re catchy enough to spend long periods stuck in your head, just like “The Laws Have Changed.”- Eric R. Danton
Joe Nichols”Real Things,” Universal SouthJoe Nichols has secured a place in the country mainstream by making music with strong traditional foundations, filling his first four albums with tunes at once modern and infused with classic sounds. The 30-year-old Arkansas native holds that line with “Real Things,” peeling back slices of life in earnest fashion on songs that are simple and effective.Most at home in settings that allow him to be mellow and deliberate, Nichols makes his own pace and never sounds anything but relaxed on the sprightly mix of perky fiddle and acoustic guitar on “Another Side of You.” His manner is patient without sacrificing personality, so he sounds suitably involved in the stout, accessible honky tonk of “Comin’ Back in a Cadillac,” and capable of the longing that spills from the plea for intimacy at the heart of “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.”His songs are low key but never dreary, whether he is keeping a level head to navigate the rippling piano of “She’s All Lady” or simmering alongside guest Lee Ann Womack on the pretty, pedal steel guitar-dappled ballad “If I Could Only Fly.” There is nothing complex about the hardy embrace of lowbrow loving “Let’s Get Drunk and Fight,” nor the measured mea culpa “My Whiskey Years,” but Nichols offers each with a comfortable resonance that is at the core of his appealing authenticity.- Thomas Kintner