It’s Life or Death or What’s the Point?: On the Return of Sleater-Kinney and Belle and Sebastian

01/14/2015 9:10 AM |

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Sleater-Kinney and Belle and Sebastian came up at the same time and were embraced by overlapping circles, but the bands began by evoking completely disparate ideas: While one band punched and clawed its way to a finer future, the other daydreamed of a more vibrant past. Their respective ideas of indie-rock have long felt suited to completely different goals and activities—demanding the spotlight versus drifting happily out of view; storming the pit or just taking the bus. And yet, despite their opposite dispositions, these two groups wound up being two of the most enduring bands of the 90s. Now, both start their third decades with return albums. No Cities to Love is the first by Sleater-Kinney after a ten year hiatus, and it’s-a-stomped-boot-on-the-gas-pedal of an abruptly announced reunion. Meanwhile, in spite of Stuart Murdoch’s time off spent directing a film, Belle and Sebastian have remained conspicuously active in the last decade, embracing a new identity as crowd-pleasing pros. Their ninth album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, is the fullest evidence of that creeping extroversion. Again the groups take different routes—one clarifying their resolve, the other expanding their boundaries.

No Cities to Love is a punchy record, combative and concise: There are no ballads; no song exceeds four minutes. It’s itchy and unfulfilled, palpably anxious and kind of pissed about it. Its lyrics cast off anything that could possibly lead to self-delusion, the band nearly desperate to deny easy comfort and keep themselves sharp. They push away from scenester enclaves, and won’t wrap themselves up in old sounds or old friends or old idols, but also doubt that any new wave is coming to save rock and roll, let alone the world. The only thing they trust is their ability, the sounds they can make together. Nothing is so important as the shared purpose of continuing on.

The songs display an impressive balance. They’re noisy but streamlined with the unstoppable force of early Gang of Four. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s guitars are parallel lines braided into thick, knotty ropes. Drummer Janet Weiss plays mean or loose as needed, with equal conviction. Vocally, the distinction between Tucker’s holy wailing and Brownstein’s more wry tone have blurred. Tucker whispers for sinister effect, Brownstein chimes in with added fire. They often combine for shout-along hooks. There are eclectic touches: A floating little pop bridge on the title track that smacks of peak Madonna, the album closer returns to the classic rock muse that drove The Woods. But it works mainly as a distillation of the band’s career strengths. It’s not crazy to think that this might one day be considered the most succinct, assured introduction to Sleater-Kinney. They take the idea of band reunions as nostalgic festival-circuit cash grab, crumple it up and toss it to ground. It’s life or death, or what’s the point?

“Somebody trying to make a political record is somebody making a boring record. It’s what people do when they’ve given up on life and romance,” said Stuart Murdoch in a recent interview with The Quietus. If directed with any sort of outward specificity that could be provocative, but it’s hardly a surprising assessment of his own work. Matters of the heart and head are Murdoch’s great subject, and he’s used them to craft one of the very best pop careers of a generation. Compared to the rousing combustion of Sleater-Kinney, the stakes in a Belle and Sebastian song are almost always small, their circumstances mundane. When Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance mentions “bombs in the Middle East” it’s only an example of the sort of thing that gives its heroine the blues. (“I Fought in a War” considered home-town heartbreak more perilous than sniper fire, too.) But the scale and assurance with which which interior states are projected has grown, drastically. Murdoch once confessed his bed-ridden envy of track stars like a hushed secret. “Nobody’s Empire” recounts the same period of his life with huge swells of backup singing, nearing the amplitude of gospel music. 

The album’s wider use of retro dance music elements, a judicious application of Chic’s bass lines or Moroder chug, isn’t so shocking a departure. The lo-fi synth-pop of “Electronic Renaissance” was an outlier on their debut. Circa 2004, the first line of “Your Cover’s Blown” spoke for indie audiences newly embracing dance music: “Say what you want and leave your shyness home.” It might also have been a self-help mantra, jumpstarting the band’s evolution from the very definition of twee into a confident big festival draw. So to hear them now, finally going full Pet Shop Boys on “The Party Line,” or writing disco about Sylvia Plath as if following a snarky Twitter dare to completion? It seems the payoff to much foreshadowing. Given his sickly adolescence, it’s actually more heartwarming than mortifying to find Murdoch cutting an occasional rug as a grown man. 

There wasn’t much young buck preening on old Belle and Sebastian records, anyway. Meekness overcome with age is not nearly as embarrassing as the sight of youthful glory, fading fast. Though often girl-obsessed, and occasionally randy, Belle and Sebastian have never been leering or macho. Their music has always incorporated female voices and perspectives and continues to now. Pivotal band member Sarah Martin has several assured vocal turns in this set. A guest appearance by Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny provides the most forceful female foil for Murdoch since Monica Queen stole “Lazy Line Painter Jane” out from under him. His own voice has taken on just a touch of warm grit over the years, no longer the boyish wisp of the late 90s.

In terms of greater legacy, it’s tempting to give Sleater-Kinney the edge. Punk bands led by furious young women are now common enough that the patronizing novelty narrative riot grrls rose bristling against has been made flatly inaccurate. But there’s no shortage of personal pop on the gentler edges, either. Sweet, tiny songs from Frankie Cosmos or Brooklyn’s Epoch Collective prove the evergreen appeal of Belle and Sebastian’s early stuff. But as both bands have cemented their statures, perspective has made the characters in their songs seem more reconcilable. It’s easy to picture the shy girl molding life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay gaining confidence as she moves through the world, deciding she might prefer to be someone else’s Joey Ramone. They endure because the personas they’ve set up from the beginning are sustainable. Strong, unapologetic femininity and kind, inclusive masculinity aren’t risks to slip out of style.