Sleater-Kinney: No Cities To Love (Sub Pop) It’s a peculiar kind of triumph that a band as comparatively “new” as Sleater-Kinney—new in a world where tours by the Rolling Stones and the Who are still big news and the remnants of the Grateful Dead gear up for their 50th anniversary—can generate the kind of excitement it has with this album, their first in 10 years. What helps a lot is: It’s very good. Nostalgia is one thing, but the attachment this Pacific Northwest-based band has maintained with its audience over the years is based less on sentiment than on the raw playing and feeling evidenced on the seven album they made since forming in 1994. All were recently reissued by Sub Pop a few months back, all but one were remastered, and each helped set the stage for how fresh and contemporary No Cities To Love now sounds. While a significant number of younger people may know the band’s Carrie Brownstein more for her Portlandia role in 2015, it’s what’s on display here, and the back catalog, that’s going to have more staying power. Energy, enthusiasm, emotion, loud guitars, a pounding beat and a whole mess of good songs is what this is all about.
Belle And Sebastian: Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (Matador) To say that a new Belle And Sebastian album goes down smoothly borders on the unnecessary, of course, but really—not that there were ever any rough edges to be had in nearly 20 years of B&S albums, but this is almost jarring in it polish. Though that appealing vocal evocation of Donovan/early Momus that enraptured many back in the band’s If You’re Feeling Sinister days is there if you listen hard enough, the fey vocals have been replaced by the chorused vocals, the acoustic guitars by the occasional dance beat—which is fine, this isn’t anyone’s “disco” album by a long shot—and the once deeply personal lyrics by those less striking but more genteel. Which, after several listenings, appears to mean this album is consistently good, not great; accomplished but never truly striking; and pure Belle And Sebastian based on its cover art, song titles like “Enter Sylvia Plath” and “The Cat With The Cream,” and the fact that you know they still have the best album ever inside them just waiting to come out. But it’s not this one.
The Decemberists: What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (Capitol) There’s a strength, maturity and richness to this new Decemberists album that you might expect from a band that’s been around so long—it’s their seventh studio set, coming a few years after 2011’s The King Is Dead debuted at No. 1—but it’s still surprising to hear. Between opening tracks “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” “Calvary Captain” and “Philomena,” singer Colin Meloy and company are all over the place, fusing contemporary coyness with tracks that sometimes evoke the sound of Gary Puckett & the Union Gap (that horn arrangement!) and, unbelievably, even Bobby Vee. While the subject matter of the songs verges from the deeply profound (“12/17/12,” the date of the Newtown massacre) to the faux-traditional (“Better Not Wake The Baby”), there’s an aesthetic consistency running through every song here that is quietly remarkable. It may be a very odd muse, but the Decemberists are gleefully following it. And they’re getting better with every album.
Marilyn Manson: The Pale Emperor (Loma Vista) The notion that Marilyn Manson might be releasing any music of relative worth has, for many, bordered on the absurd, mainly because his entire career—from his stage name onward—has focused on the sensational rather the artful. Like a much less interesting Alice Cooper—which isn’t really saying much—Manson has long seemed like the sort of “musician” who was gearing up to spend the remaining 30 years of his business life doing cameos in crappy movies–which, were that to happen, might benefit all of us equally. So: This being a good album and all messes things up. It’s moody, atmospheric, never especially cheesy—the major issue with MM, historically—and were it to be released by an artist under another name, it might be getting uniformly positive reviews. As it is, it’s a big step up, an unexpectedly straightforward leap into the credible for Manson, and a much better play than the inevitable Netflix bit-player stint that’s waiting in the wings.
King Crimson: Live At The Orpheum (Discipline Global Mobile) A souvenir for those who managed to catch the “new” King Crimson lineup during their 2014 tour, this surprisingly short document (41 minutes in all) captures a portion of the reconstituted band’s performances at LA’s Orpheum Theatre last October, offers it up in dual CD and DVD-A formats, and apparently frustrates the hell out of those in attendance who now wonder where all the rest of the nights’ music went. Though not officially a “reunion” –players include band founder Robert Fripp, Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin, Mel Collins, Jakko Jakszyk and Tony Levin—the concerts featured unexpected material (“Sailor’s Tale,” “The Letters,” “Starless”) very capably performed and deserve a much more thorough documentation that this. But if you missed any of it, here you go.
Fall Out Boy: American Beauty / American Psycho (Island) While some bands seem to have more and more aggressively short shelf-lives these days, here comes the strangely long-lived Fall Out Boy with their first album since 2012’s Save Rock And Roll–which entered the charts at No. 1, caused many jaws to drop, and kept their career kicking. This new one, which only needed to add American Idiot to its title for complete multi-generational misappropriation, is pretty sharp as well. It borrows from Suzanne Vega, it borrows from the Munsters, it borrows from that peculiar half-region between pop and punk that an entire generation of bands based careers on 10 years ago, and sometimes there’s just enough energy, credibility and pop culture references to make the case for Fall Out Boy in 2015. Good for them.
Viet Cong: Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar) You might have to be of a certain age—and have watched a lot of TV in your day—to enjoy the fact that members of a Canadian who once called themselves Women have recently resurfaced bearing an even more threatening name! Between this and last year’s Cassette, the band is producing some of the more interesting music you’ll hear these days–taking a bit from the expected Goth/Joy Division/VU side of things but throwing in some very solid songs as well as textures throughout to stir interest. There’s a lot going on in here, and most of it really doesn’t sound like too many other people. You may like this a lot.
Jellyfish: Bellybutton (Deluxe Edition), Spilt Milk (Deluxe Edition) (both Omnivore) There are very few bands more worthy of a critical and popular reappraisal than California’s own Jellyfish–whose two albums, issued to raves but minimal sales in the early ‘90s, now sound better than ever. Referred to at the time as “power-pop”—a label that now sounds oddly dated and nondescript—the band’s music is now, as it was then, jarringly contemporary, melodic, rocking, and the sort of thing that should have been blaring from everyone’s radios from Day One. Built around a core crew of players Andy Sturmer, Roger Manning and (initially) Jason Falkner, the band whipped out fab song after fab song, and one of the very fabbest, “The King Is Half-Undressed,” resides here in no less than four different configurations. It’s very good, as is nearly all of Jellyfish’s music. There was a point in the past when liking Queen, Supertramp and ELO might’ve seemed the height of hipster heresy, but these guys managed that an much, much more during their brief time together. Available as expanded 2-CD sets via the astute Omnivore label, each bearing excellent liner notes by Ken Sharp, these records are, as some would have it, ready to rock your world. Highly recommended.