Fair to Middling
The First Fruits of Fifteen

In a sense, it’s good to get the first big disappointment of the year out of the way early.

Two weeks ago I was all excitement and joy, looking forward to a year of potential delights. I always write my year-ahead column in the best frame of mind, hopeful and optimistic. I know, deep down, that some (if not many) of the records I find myself looking forward to in the first weeks of January will undoubtedly let me down when they arrive, but I try not to let that dampen my anticipation. I’m looking forward to these things for a reason.

I never expect to be brought down to earth by the first few things I buy during a year, but in retrospect, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when that happens. It gets me on more of an even keel, and lets the year be what it is, instead of the magical mythical thing I’ve built it up to be in my mind. Getting the heavy sighs out up front sets that bar at a more realistic level, and hopefully helps me enjoy (or not enjoy) what’s coming without worrying when the first crushing blow will come.

Or so I keep telling myself, because 2015 is not off to the best start.

The first new record I bought this year was Guster’s Evermotion, and to say I’m let down by this thing would be to understate by miles. I used to love Guster, back when they were a scrappy, strummy pop band from Boston. Their early records all but explode with energy and potential, and their gimmick – using no drums, just hand percussion – set them apart. Lost and Gone Forever is still a fine, fine collection of tunes, and even when they gave up the hand-drums and started using kits in the early 2000s, they still made a splendid piece of work in Keep It Together.

Since then, they’ve seemingly been on a mission to erase whatever personality they once had. Their previous two records found them slipping into some kind of stupor, writing some of the most boring songs in their catalog. Still, I didn’t hate either one of them, and parts of Easy Wonderful seemed to hearken back to their old selves, even if it felt like looking at distant reflections across a great chasm.

But I hate Evermotion. I’ve heard it five times now, looking for something redeeming about it, and I haven’t found much of anything. The band did say they were hoping to become something else completely on this record, a statement that usually fills me with hope and dread in equal measures. It turns out that what they wanted to become was comatose. Evermotion is full of synthesizers and gauzy production, and devoid of any interesting songs. The whole thing sounds blurry and indistinct – a real surprise from producer Richard Swift – and the groove is lazy and lackadaisical from the first notes.

Those first notes belong to “Long Night,” and if you’ve heard it – four and half minutes of the same three chords – you should know that it’s the tone-setter for the whole record. There are a couple of moments on Evermotion I don’t dislike. “Endlessly” has the makings of a pretty good song. There’s a guitar figure in “Lazy Love” that reminds me of The Choir’s “If I Had a Yard.” “Simple Machine” starts off like it’s going to go somewhere, with its skipping beat and synth bass burbles. But every one of these moments is subsumed into the larger sleepy whole. And after “Simple Machine,” there isn’t a single song I like, or even remember.

I guess I still have a lingering, residual attachment to Guster, but with every album they put out, that attachment weakens. The band clearly put a lot of work into this new sound, all keyboard-y and reverbed. It sounds like an Animal Collective record, but without anything interesting happening underneath. Evermotion plays like one long forgettable song, and I find it hard to care much about it. The CD comes in a neat package, one that uses a pull tab to gently ease the disc from the cardboard wallet without scratching it up. That’s the single most interesting thing about Evermotion, the first big disappointment of 2015.

* * * * *

I’m not going to say that Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love is the second big disappointment of the year. But as jazzed as I was to hear it, the record itself left me with something of a shrug.

No Cities is the first Sleater-Kinney album in 10 years, and of course it has a lot to live up to. S-K is a capital-I Important band, one of the leading lights of the Riot Grrl movement out of the Pacific Northwest in the late ‘90s, and easily one of the best. It has never needed to be said in my house, but Sleater-Kinney showed that the girls could rock just as hard as the boys, if not harder. Corin Tucker is an absolute badass, her guitars slashing and burning beneath her slicing wail of a voice. And though kids probably know Carrie Brownstein more for Portlandia now, her guitar playing has always been tough and no-nonsense. (Check out her other band, Wild Flag, for more proof.)

But after seven records, Sleater-Kinney seemed to have said all they had to say. 2005’s The Woods wasn’t bad, but it was another S-K record, no better or worse than the previous few. And I don’t know what I expected from No Cities except that, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s another 30 minutes of Sleater-Kinney rocking out. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but if you sit through this thinking you’ve heard it all before, well, you kind of have.

That said, No Cities is a fine Sleater-Kinney record. Its 10 songs crash in, rip shit up, and crash out. An abrasive, punky nugget like “Gimme Love” is vintage S-K, and their trademark guitar interplay is all over the title track and “No Anthems,” to name a couple. The energy level never flags, and it’s great to hear this band come back to it after so long away without missing a beat. Listening again right now, I realize I’m probably just being curmudgeonly – the band sounds vital, attacking these new songs with the same explosive power that they’ve always brought to bear.

I’m not sure if No Cities to Love just didn’t live up to the band’s legacy in my mind, or if I’m judging it too harshly. It feels to me like what it probably is – three musicians settling back in after a decade apart, and playing to their strengths. There’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with No Cities either, unless you were expecting something revelatory. It’s a short record of short songs with bite, played with verve by veterans who sound as eager as newcomers.

“Exhume our idols, bury our friends, we are wild and weary but we won’t give in,” Tucker sings on “Bury Our Friends,” a line that feels like a mission statement. If Sleater-Kinney feel weary on No Cities, they’re not showing it. And now that they’ve got the reunion record out of the way, I’m looking forward to seeing what an older and wiser Sleater-Kinney can do.

* * * * *

I’m also faintly disappointed in the new Decemberists album, but the more I listen, the more I am enjoying what’s here instead of lamenting what isn’t.

The Decemberists may be the most literate indie folk band around, writing songs based in ancient myths (and creating a few new myths of their own). They also used to be one of the most ambitious, as evidenced by the run of releases that began with 2004’s 18-minute epic The Tain and culminated with 2009’s extraordinary rock opera The Hazards of Love. That album, an hour-long tale of magic and deception and talking fauns, was my favorite of that year, and is still my favorite thing this band has given us. Sure, they were in danger of turning into Jethro Tull had they continued down that road, but hell, I like Jethro Tull.

Instead, the band retrenched and simplified. Their last record, The King is Dead, was easily their least ambitious – ten short, elementary folk tunes – and their new one, while a step up, retains that easy-breezy feeling. It’s called What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, and its 14 songs are all strummy and placid affairs, most staying around the three-to-five-minute mark. The album is undeniably pretty, and Colin Meloy’s gentle tenor is in fine form, as is his gift for lyrics that make you feel like renewing your library card.

There are plenty of highlights. Opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is the funniest thing Meloy has ever written, an exhortation to his fans to roll with the band’s changes. “We’re aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in the video,” he sings, before declaring, “We know you built your lives around us, but we had to change some…” “Cavalry Captain” sports a sweeping horn line, “Make You Better” is a memorable bit of folksy-rock, as is “The Wrong Year.” “Till the Water’s All Long Gone” is a lovely low crawl, and the string of short tunes that make up the back half all do their jobs nicely, particularly the bar-ready “Better Not Wake the Baby.”

And the album ends strongly as well. “12/17/12,” written three days after the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is a fragile acoustic hymn about grief and celebrating life. The song gives the album its title: “And oh my god, what a world you have made here, what a terrible world, what a beautiful world…” Finale “A Beginning Song” is rich and full, Meloy joyously noting the bright light of love that surrounds him and moves him on. The very novelty of a Decemberists album with a happy ending is enough to recommend this.

And I guess I am recommending it. The more I listen, the more satisfied I am with what the band has delivered here, despite its low aspirations. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World builds on the barely-there skeleton of the band’s last effort, and hopefully is a sign that they’re going to continue to build back up. While much of this record finds them coasting on their singular sound, there’s enough investment and enough of interest to fill me with hope for the future. In the meantime, this is a perfectly serviceable Decemberists album, neither particularly terrible nor particularly beautiful.

* * * * *

Next week, the first great records of 2015. Yes, they’re real, and yes, they’re spectacular. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.