Over the summer, I saw The Postal Service in concert and while watching Jenny Lewis energetically bop around the stage it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten about her band, Rilo Kiley. I was a big fan of Rilo Kiley in middle and high school until they broke up in 2007 and fell somewhat into obscurity. Looking back on the records I enjoyed and the ones I didn’t, it becomes clearer that a shift occurred when they produced their last album with Warner Bros. Even the band members knew it wasn’t their best work. Rilo Kiley’s guitarist said, “I think that it could have been our best but I think we were under pressure. There were some of our best songs on that record but some of our worst songs. Like, ‘Dejalo’ and ’15’ — I didn’t like those songs. They’re OK, but we have a ton of old tracks that are better than a lot of the stuff that did make the record.”
This album, Under the Blacklight, was their first under a mainstream label. Warner Bros. signed them after the success of More Adventurous, my personal favorite album from the band. More Adventurous feels like listening to a compilation of deeply personal short stories, each with their own complicated characters. For example, in ‘A Man/Me/Then Jim’, the song tells the story of a lesbian couple, dealing with their breakup and the suicide of a friend. But alternatively, ‘The Moneymaker’, their first single from Under the Blacklight, doesn’t sound like their previous songs regarding sex. It is more overt, less delicate. The album doesn’t have a defined sensibility to it. There are sad songs, happy songs, quirky upbeat songs, which is normal for a lot of albums, but this seems to me an influence from the label to make the album more approachable to a wider audience.
Rilo Kiley’s transition to the mainstream might seem surprising, considering their previous distinct indie sound. They created their own label, Brute/Beaute Records, to distribute More Adventurous, which was distributed by Warner Bros. But others weren’t surprised by their shift: some claim this was their foray into mainstream by producing songs that were catchier and more radio friendly. They left their previous label, Saddle Creek, partly because the company wasn’t willing to pony up the cost of putting their songs on the radio. Drummer Jason Boesel says in the linked article that the hope was to be signed to Warner Bros. even though he is aware of the risks. “It would be wrong to say we’re not taking a gamble choosing to go into this world. We’re taking a risk. These companies are set up to make money, while indies like Saddle Creek started out as a way to put out good music, which is a completely different thing,” Boesel explains.
Eventually, the band did break up due to, as guitarist Blake Sennett stated, “deception, disloyalty [and] greed.” So as I speculate, perhaps all members weren’t on board with this blatant move towards the mainstream. Like Hesmondhalgh implies, major labels do influence aesthetic differences, sometimes more subtly than others, but in Rilo Kiley’s case, the label wasn’t the only factor in making the sound more mainstream and accessible.