Beer and Pavement

Reviewing Early 2015 Releases: Sleater-Kinney, Viet Cong, and Belle & Sebastian

Posted in Records, Review by SM on January 20, 2015

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Yeah, I’m still here. I’m drinking all the beer and listening to all the records, but how are you to know this? Time to share what I know.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

No Cities to Love might be the most anticipated album I have… er… anticipated in a long, long time. That’s why it was a little disappointing it didn’t strike me upside the head on the first listen. What is this? I thought. I didn’t know what to make of it. There was already the commitment of a preorder to the deluxe version, so I needed to give it a chance. Thank god for streaming.

After maybe five or six listens, this record is starting to make sense to me. It opens fat and heavy with “Price Tag”, but this is also where I first had questions about the keyboards/organ. But those riffs and the development of the vocals from their screaming in the nineties… I came to realize that this just happens to be the most ambitious album of the band’s 20+ year run. The songs are fleshed out with the aforementioned keys and add the dance thing they were doing on All Hands and the power they instituted on One Beat and The Woods. Throw in side projects with Quasi, The Jicks, Wild Flag, and a solo gig and what you have is a band with history and chops to make a pretty great rock record. That sharp bite that was always part of Sleater-Kinney remains, but now there’s some distance and perspective and some kind of reverence for an arena rock anthem. Sleater-Kinney can still kick some ass.

I mentioned the first track as a great opener, but the album doesn’t let up from there. All of these songs are big and full of attitude. Sleater-Kinney doesn’t record bad or timid music. What they have done is accumulated all kinds of depth over the years without losing any of the angst or urgency they had as young riot grrrls. They sing better. They play better. They write better. They are actually better than what I once considered one of the 3-5 best rock bands of the nineties.

“Fangless” follows “Price Tag” and I’m now ready to dance. The control Corin Tucker has over his voice is really evident and the back-and-forth with Carrie Brownstein’s voice is classic Sleater-Kinney. The only difference is that both women know how to use their voices, complimenting contrasting aesthetics like few others can. This is what hardcore and riot grrrl co-screamers wish they could do with their tired, ragged vocal chords.

Then there’s “Surface Envy” with its steady drive and beat, leading to one of the better S-K choruses in their catalog. “We win/We lose/Only together do we make the rules!” The infectious title track follows with its own catchy chorus. “A New Wave” sounds like it could have been pulled from the never-happening Wild Flag follow-up. My god. Is there a bad song on this record? What was I thinking on those first few listens?

“Burry Friends” is a hit if the title track doesn’t catch on. (I say this with tongue planted in cheek. I mean, what’s an indie hit, really?) Again, there’s another solid chorus and some ambitious, big-sounding production. “Hey Darling” is almost as straight-up a classic rock song as I’ve ever heard from the band. It really reminds me of a Pearl Jam song I can’t place. Weird, but Tucker’s vocal performance carries it. The record closes with a slow, heavy rocker appropriately named “Fade.” I think this last sonically matches the majesty of The Woods.

There’s so much more I could tell you. For one, I’ve mostly written about the vocal prowess, but all instruments are as polished as ever. Janet Weiss is as amazing as ever on the skins. She can pound and subtly keep the beat like few others. I would differentiate between Brownstein’s and Tucker’s guitars, but that’s pointless. They are both amazingly aggressive and loud players. The production as with the remastered albums in the box set bring all this to life. I don’t know how much staying power the songs will have, but this record as a whole just sounds great.

Viet Cong – S/T (video is NSFW for a second, but mostly okay)

So, I stumbled upon this band and knew I had to buy their… cassette tape. Wait. I don’t own a working cassette player anymore. Luckily, I knew this album was coming out in more consumable formats and that day has finally arrived.

Viet Cong is a band for me that sort of takes over and fills my speakers constantly with urgency and feeling. There was that year I discovered Japandroids and last year was Ought’s year. Viet Cong is different by repeating what’s been done before from distant drones, lo-fi production, and a youthful energy I only see in my children, not adults playing music.

The opener is all messy and amateurish, but it promises something cohesive and purposeful. I hate underground and lo-fi acts that just fuck around. Sure, the sound and execution don’t have to be perfect, but I just forked over some cash for this here record. At least act like you care. And to be clear, there’s the definite impression Viet Cong are not fucking around and maybe care a little bit about what they’re doing.

Those tinny drums come back and a groove sets in with “Pointless Experience.” At this point, I feel like this must have been what Joy Division sounded like in their bedrooms on 4-track. “March of Progress” is all over the place and you feel as if you’re off to the races. “Bunker Buster” does a stripped-down rocker thing and “Continental Shelf” is all 80’s/John Hughes anthemic. The pace picks up again with “Silhouettes” before “Death” ends the LP too soon with some jangle.

This was the record Interpol should have recorded instead of going all polished after their masterful Turn on the Bright Lights. Lou Barlow should have produced their follow-up and this record would have happened 15 years ago. Don’t leave the room or you’ll miss the meat of these seven, beautiful recordings. This record will be somewhere in my top-3 for sure. It’s that good and that much fun.

Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

I don’t know if we’re in peacetime, but this might be the most danceable album of the Belle & Sebastian oeuvre. That’s good and bad. Still, of the three albums here, this is the one I’m most ambivalent about. On one hand, it’s much better than the previous 2-3 records. On the other hand, I don’t think B&S will ever recapture the magic they had pre-Storytelling.

(Side note: I often debate whether or not U2 went downhill with the release of The Joshua Tree or after it. Could Storytelling be Belle & Sebastian’s Joshua Tree?)

To be honest, this album is split into thirds with all the tracks sticking fairly close to the idea of girls dancing through peacetime. If I had time, I’d piece together the imagery and themes, but this review is done on the quick, but I digress.

I’ll start with the third that gives me hope for B&S. I loved, loved those first four albums. They are full of old-school folk wonder and some stripped-down, recorded in a church kind of shit. The songs were smart and as forlorn as anything Joy Division ever attempted to vocalize. “The Cat with the Cream” is a bit more embellished with strings than these early records, but the muffled vocals and sad lyrics scream early Belle & Sebastian all the way. “Ever Had a Little Faith” is classic even with a tiny nod to Velvet Underground. (I love it when B&S go into Velvet mode even when it’s brief.)

A third of these songs certainly fit the 80’s dance vibe B&S seem to be going for. Tracks like “The Party Line”, “Enter Syvia Plath”, “The Power of Three”, etc. are fairly synth-heavy and really danceable. Of course, some of the best B&S moments are danceable (see “Women’s Realm”) but they rarely venture into New Order territory.

Another third represent the pristine pop Stuart Murdoch has been striving for over the last few records (post-Storytelling). I’m not gonna lie. I don’t normally like this part of the B&S oeuvre, but tracks like “Nobody’s Empire” and “The Book of You” (a little T Rex-y with female vocals) combine some of the witty songwriting of those early albums with the band’s sonic expansion.

Overall, I like this record, but I don’t know if I love it or not. I might have to Spotify it for a week or two before breaking down and just buying it.

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