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Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight

I thought Jenny Lewis was supposed to be cool. On Rilo Kiley’s latest record, Under the Blacklight, lead singer and frontwoman of the late Lewis seems more like a wannabe sexy, edgy, talented indie pop star than the real thing. In the majority of the album’s 11 tracks, Lewis unknowingly and embarrassingly makes it very clear that she wants to sound like someone who knows the ins and outs of sleazy nights in Los Angeles. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Cool rock ’n’ roll stars don’t need to emphasize their coveted debauchery; it’s apparent. Not only that, but when Lewis talks about sex — which she does quite frequently — she sounds removed, as if trying desperately hard to remember what an empty one-night stand or wild threesome feels like.

Lewis also likes to write songs about what I call “trendy” subjects. Here, one wonders if she’s writing about these issues because she really cares deeply about them, or because she knows that a very large group of people will understand them in some vague way. The song “15,” for example, is about a guy who has sex with a rebellious 15-year-old girl, not knowing her true age. “Breakin’ Up” is a sort of “Girl Power” anthem, celebrating the idea that, for a woman, a breakup can be a liberating experience rather than a devastating one. Lastly, “Dreamworld” talks about an innocent kid who loses his legs after his father makes him fight in a war overseas. Lewis also seems to have a knack for using fruit-inspired similes, throwing in lines like “ripe as a peach” and “bruised like a cherry.”

The music itself also belies Lewis’s efforts to sound like someone who’s “been there.” As per usual with Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight has a country twang, which already makes it more susceptible to entering the realm of cheesiness. But that’s no excuse. Each unthreatening, catchy chorus seems to be specifically geared toward perking up the ears of Top-40 listeners. The guitar work sounds robotic, almost like an electric keyboard on the “rock guitar” setting. And when not stealing guitar lines from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Rilo Kiley likes to compose guitar and keyboard riffs that simply repeat the vocal melody. Oh, and it’s overproduced.

Under the Blacklight has its strengths, to be sure. Lewis’s voice has never sounded better. It soars and quavers over the cookie-cutter music beneath it, like an all-star quarterback on a mediocre football team. And while the songs are predictable, overwrought, and uninspired, they’re all for the most part agreeable to listen to; some of them even sound pretty good. After switching from an indie record label to a major one, putting out the solo album Rabbit Fur Coat last year, and taking over the once democratic Rilo Kiley, Lewis clearly has her eye on the stadiums, what appropriate venues for playing this type of music.

M.I.A., Kala

Who is M.I.A.? If you, like so many others, are unfamiliar with the Sri Lankan electronic rapping, social commenting, Perez Hilton favorite, this is a briefing: There is yet another music phenomenon, straight from the U.K.

M.I.A.’s second studio album, Kala, is even more intense and electronic than her first venture, Arular. Still, Kala lacks the playfulness offered throughout the entirety of M.I.A.’s debut, featuring instead some serious hip-hop/electronic/dance beats. Take, for example, the closing track, “Come Around,” which features producer Timbaland’s Midas touch. This track, among others, brings out the hip-hop in M.I.A. without abandoning her electronic/dance roots, creating the types of songs that you can’t get out of your head, from her first single “Boyz” to the sequel “$20” (a rant on inflation — compare to the track from Arular titled “10 Dollar”). Fortunately, her social awareness hasn’t quit since her debut.

It’s true: M.I.A. is still representing those fervent views on guns, bombs, and war, and she’s still in your face. This album doesn’t talk any smack about President Bush, unfortunately, but M.I.A. touches on the war-wasted, malnourished countries in Africa and black market trades in India, and she’s still as blunt as ever.

Kala, although much awaited by her fans, is a complete turn from Arular. It isn’t as captivating, nor perfectly indifferent to society’s view on her opinions. This time around, M.I.A. seems to be a bit more conscious of what her words mean to people, though she is still determined to get all of her words out, one way or another. But with M.I.A. sporting a stronger image than ever before — bright-patterned, seizure-inducing outfits and a blonde-tipped bob — you won’t be able to say you’ve never heard of her by the end of 2007.