Rock Review Roundup: Sleater-Kinney, The Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian
This week sees the release of three high profile rock acts. Riot Grrls Sleater-Kinney recently reunited and put out their first album in a decade, No Cities to Love, indie rock favorites The Decemberists put out their first record in four years What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, and whimsical Glasgow folk rocker Belle & Sebastian put out Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. All three are quality records and similar in a lot of ways so I put relatively short reviews to summarize each.
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Ten years after Sleater-Kinney broke up, a reunited album could have paled in comparison to their excellent catalog which includes classic albums like Dig Me Out (1997) and The Woods (2005). But alas, these girls are definitive to the Grrl Rock movement and punk rock in a broader sense because they are so ferocious and artful at the same time.
This proves to be true on No Cities to Love which comes out of the gates with the excellent “Price Tag.” The album continues at full throttle for a full ten song set which barely slows down or loses steam. None of the songs reach above 4 minutes and they all act as injection of angst and grrl power. These feelings persist on the songs “Fangless” and “Surface Envy” which both rock out with Corin Tucker screaming in her characteristic wail.
“A New Wave” announces the intention with lines like “steal from the makers that made us” and a general call against materialistic trappings. The riffs are catchy, Carrie Browstein and Tucker have the familiar treble heavy punk rock dynamic that’s been unblemished by a decade. Other songs like “Bury Our Friends” have a grunge heaviness that’s aggressive and full of subverted classic rock riffs recontextualized in a punk rock format.
Some of the songs end up sounding same-y with mid tempo garage-ness, but each has a distinct catch and a concise stylistic approach that gets mirrored by the band’s strong performance.
The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Opening the album with the “The Singer Addresses His Audience” there’s a feeling that The Decemberists are both returning to their roots of folk rock, and staying the course of art indie folk rock. Like Sleater-Kinney, the two are both Pacific Northwest kindred spirits, and while the Decemberists fall on the side of whimsy, the two are both interested in crafting artistically challenging songs while retaining poppy hooks.
“Make You Better” is an album standout, with a mature awareness in the chorus “But we’re not so starry-eyed anymore / like the perfect paramore.” It’s this kind of straightforward awareness that makes the majority of these songs come off as sincere and mature observations about the narrator’s past. Singer Colin Meloy, as usual, sounds somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst, and his lyricism remains strong throughout, singing about the past with a world weary voice.
“Till the Water’s All Long Gone” has a jazzy swing to it that’s equal parts pleasant and foreboding, with some stellar classical guitar work which hangs nicely over the piano. It’s also here that Meloy most effectively lends dark tones to his vocal delivery. A song that goes nicely with it is the bluesy “Carolina Blue” which is the going for the feeling of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” The rootsy feeling continues with the banjo inflected irish jig “Better Not Wake the Baby.”
As with the Sleater-Kinney, the songs kind of end up sounding same-y, with almost all of them being mid-tempo acoustic ballads that waver between indie folk and rootsy folk, but for the lack of dynamics, there’s an aesthetic continuity that makes this a strong offering.
Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Hailing from Glasgow, Belle and Sebastian have been making whimsical folkish music since 1996. Led by Stuart Murdoch’s funny and subtle songwriting, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is the first album since 2010’s Write about Love.
Unlike The Decemberist’s Meloy, Murdoch’s voice isn’t weighted with melodrama and much more interested in capturing childish wonderment, as exemplified by the hooky “Nobody’s Empire.” It also has some of the most clever lyrics “Now I look at you / you’re a mother of two / you’re a quiet revolution” which is at once arresting, personal, affirming, and whimsical. It’s almost a cliche to call Belle and Sebastian “whimsical” at this point, but there’s no better word for it.
Another highlight is the dance floor inflected “Party Line” which has funk beats and catchy hooks all over the place. It’s almost a send up to Daft Punk’s latest record, and taps into a nostalgia for Giorgio Moroder and Studio 54 atmosphere. At first, this approach seems at odds with Belle and Sebastian’s earlier work, but it comes off as both delicate and innocent, utilizing Murdoch’s infectious sense of melody as the hook and crux of the song.
While Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance have the catchiest and most memorable songs of all three records, the album itself is less focused than the others. Songs like “The Power of Three” or “The Everlasting Muse” pass without a memorable moment, and “Enter Sylvia Plath” gets bogged down in kitschy euro-techno. The second half of the album, in particular, is weak and lacks strength of the first half. Overall, the album comes across as a mixed bag, with some really good singles, but a lot of fluff.