Album Picks: Belle & Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney, Hanni El Khatib, Amen Dunes

Posted by Billy Gil, January 20, 2015 11:27am | Post a Comment

Belle & SebastianGirls in Peacetime Want to Dance

In the latter half of their career, Belle & Sebastian have consistently tried to balance the desire to appeal to a wider audience with more outward-facing pop songs alongside the bookish indie pop that netted them a cult of worshipping devotees in the first place. They’ve never done it quite as successfully as they have here on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. Opener “Nobody’s Empire,” with its marching beat, glowing synths and gospel choir backup vocals comes off like a statement of purpose: This will be a richly produced pop album (courtesy of Ben H. Allen III, who’s worked both with the indie-pop elite and hip-hop artists), so gear up. The band comes up with one of its most radio-ready singles to date on “The Party Line,” a disco-rock track with typically clever lyrics and a booming synth riff that won’t quit. The best Stevie Jackson-led song in years comes on the bittersweet beatnik funk of “Perfect Couples.” “Play for Today” is synthy and light, with ace guest vocals from Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny. And it’s safe to say Belle & Sebastian have the only ABBA-esque synth-pop track that name-checks Sylvia Plath. But Belle & Sebastian want to do more than make us dance. Several tracks hue closer to their ’90s incarnation while still retaining the fuller production present on the album’s more immediate moments. The European folk-flavored “The Everlasting Muse” is rich with mandolin, horns and clap-along breakdowns. The slow-rolling, string-laden “Ever Had a Little Faith” is reminiscent of early B&S highlight “The Boys of Track and Field.” And Sarah Martin gets to sing lead on both the swoony “The Power of Three” and rollicking “The Book of You,” with some ripping guitarwork to boot. So it’s not the introverted Belle & Sebastian of yore. But this edition of Belle & Sebastian manages to help them evolve without losing what made them special. It’s a win-win for fans new and old, on one of Belle & Sebastian’s best albums in years.


Sleater-KinneyNo Cities to Love

It’s tough to come back after a nearly decade-long hiatus, especially after your band’s best album (the combustibly loud The Woods). But Sleater-Kinney succeed with aplomb on No Cities to Love, which scales back on Woods’ volume without dialing down the ferocity. Cities roars right out of the gate on “Price Tag,” as Corin Tucker gives a scathing indictment of American greed over Carrie Brownstein’s tuff gnarled riffs. Janet Weiss also gives a typically dynamic performance, switching between off-kilter punk-funk and straightforward rawk on “Fangless” and giving “No Anthems” and “Gimme Love” their pounding swagger. There’s a sense that Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss are growing comfortable with one another again, and appropriately, No Cities to Love is curt at 10 songs (thankfully trimmed of any fat whatsoever, really). When the trio fits together perfectly, as on “Surface Envy,” it’s a marvel to behold, its acidic riffs swaying and bursting at the seams while Tucker gives her band a worthy rallying call (“We win, we lose, only together do we make the rules”). Decidedly, No Cities to Love is yet another win for the returning rock titans known as Sleater-Kinney.


Hanni El Khatib Moonlight

Hanni El Khatib’s throwback rock ‘n’ roll grows longer fangs on second album Moonlight. The sinister title track sees El Khatib engaging in some swampy blues with chords that hover too closely together, like kissing cousins. “Melt Me” adds some much-appreciated full-and-dirty fuzz to the mix. El Khatib largely supplants ambiance and swagger for melody, but you won’t mind when the results are as pulsating with life as songs like stomping blues-rocker “The Teeth.” While Head in the Dirt was a strong debut, Moonlight sees El Khatib finding his voice more and dedicating himself to it, coming up with a deliciously whiskey-soaked album that suggests grimy, dimly lit dive bars and the things that happen after closing time. Read my interview with Hanni El Khatib hereSee Hanni El Khatib live at Amoeba SF Feb. 7 at 4 p.m.!


Amen Dunes Cowboy Worship EP

Amen Dunes had one of my favorite albums of 2014 with the enticing, atmospheric folk-rock of Love. Cowboy Worship maintains the quality of that album while calling to mind some of his earlier, more experimental work. A live version of Love highlight “I Know Myself” expands on the original, but the most eyebrow-raising inclusion here is a version of Tim Buckley’s much-covered “Song to the Siren” that calls to mind This Mortal Coil’s classic rendition (sung by Cocteau TwinsElizabeth Fraser). Miraculously, Amen Dunes’ version completely works and succeeds in showing off Damon McMahon’s affecting voice and creative way with simple elements, working off of some tunneling, droning guitars that act as a salve to the song’s stinging emotion. A couple of tracks here make for detailed ambiance, while a live version of “Love” and the soothing “Lezzy Head” are also standouts. Check out my interview with Amen Dunes here.


Viet Cong - Viet Cong

From the ashes of the band Women comes Viet Cong, including that band’s bassist and drummer. Like Women, Viet Cong trade in gleaming, clashing guitars and droning vocal harmonies that seem to hang in mid-air, on tracks like “Bunker Buster.” “Pointless Experience” whizzes around with rocketing guitar riffs that beg to be heard on headphones, while “Continental Shelf” surfs on a New Order-ish bassline and brown waves of grimy guitar noise and leaping vocals. Though Viet Cong can be plenty crowd-pleasing when they want to be, on the new wavey “Silhouettes,” for instance, they’re also unapologetically experimental, though usually with a purpose—if you make it through the punishing industrial pulse of the first half of “March of Progress,” you’re rewarded with a haunting multivocal séance and surprisingly upbeat ending. And on final track, “Death,” the band seems to pay tribute to fallen Women guitarist Chris Reimer, with the kind of expansive guitar exercise worthy of Reimer’s sorely missed talent. Like Women, Viet Cong prefer to say what they need to say and then get out, but it’s always better to leave listeners wanting more. And any post-punk fan will be left wanting a lot more Viet Cong after hearing their dynamic debut. 

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Hanni El Khatib (17), Sleater-kinney (16), Belle & Sebastian (12), New Releases (214), New Albums (213), Album Picks (146), Amen Dunes (4), Viet Cong (1)