Alt-Rock Redheads Crank It Up a Notch

By Michael Deeds
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Maybe redheads really do have more fun. Consider the charmed lives of alt-rock gingers Jenny Lewis and Neko Case. Both are fawned over by critics. Both are hammered by nonstop flashbulbs while onstage with their bands: Lewis in Rilo Kiley, Case in the New Pornographers. And both are free to satisfy their "Hee Haw" urges through twangy solo careers -- also blubbered over by critics.

It's easy to understand the fuss on Rilo Kiley's diverse, crazy-good fourth CD, "Under the Blacklight." Lewis, 31, is blessed with an angelic voice that soars like a swallowtail . . . before diving below your belt. First single "The Moneymaker" is a slinky groove with a video about the sex industry.

Elvis Costello praised the Los Angeles band's previous album as "the best lyric writing that I've heard in many a day." This makes total sense. Costello is male. Rilo Kiley's perceptive temptress has an alluring voice that oozes the female essence. Sex is a recurring theme for Lewis and the rest of Rilo Kiley, a.k.a. the Three Dudes Behind Her.

Funk? Country? Disco? The songwriting risks pay off. Seemingly cheesy tracks make you go, "Are they kidding ?". . . until you realize each tune's indie-rock awesomeness: the Studio 54 catharsis of "Breakin' Up," the Spanish supa-funk of "Dejalo," the highly suggestive hand-clapper "Smoke Detector." Here's the dilemma: Even when Lewis isn't referencing sex -- during the stunningly sung "Close Call" or country jangler "The Angels Hung Around" -- you can't help thinking about sex.

But the naughty-named New Pornographers trigger no such guilt on "Challengers," their fourth studio album. Despite the fan worship, Case takes a back seat to Pornographers multi-instrumentalist A.C. Newman, who writes and sings many of these indie-pop songs. Rolling Stone called the last Pornographers album "speaker-blowingly brilliant." Unless mandolin and glockenspiel scare your woofers, that might be hyperbole here. Yet Newman's proclivity for sophisticated, shimmering hooks appears inexhaustible, even as the eight-member group ditches synths for more natural instruments.

Influences from the '60s and '70s -- even ELO-style vocoder on Newman's "My Rights Versus Yours" -- power the Pornographers' sleek gems. Case, 36, dominates lead vocals on just two tunes, the title track and the earnest, excellent love song "Go Places." This actually is typical of a New Porno disc. It's Case's mere presence -- and rich backing vocals -- that somehow makes her larger than life.

Male-female harmony singing is as crucial as guitars to this Canadian collective. The harmonica-tinged "Myriad Harbour," a tribute to New York daintily sung by Dan Bejar with a zillion other voices chiming in, is the Pornographers in obscenely full bloom: quirky, romantic, hopeful. "Someone somewhere asked me 'Is there anything in particular I can help you with?' " Bejar sings, soaking up the Big Apple. "All I ever wanted help with was you."

DOWNLOAD THESE: Rilo Kiley: "Breakin' Up," "Close Call," "Dejalo"; New Pornographers: "Myriad Harbour," "Go Places," "All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth"

Rilo Kiley performs at the 9:30 club on Sept. 26-27; the New Pornographers 9:30 club show on Oct. 27 is sold out.

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