Recordings | Jan. 29, 2015

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, Jan. 29, 2015.

Sweater-Kinney | No Cities To Love | Sub Pop |5stars

Long before she brought the absurdist comedy delights on IFC’s Portlandia, Carrie BrownsteinSleaterKinney_NoCitiesToLove_cover was part of one of the most influential rock bands ever, Sleater-Kinney. From 1994 to its split in 2006, the band tore through seven albums with fearless riot-grrl fury, turning classic rock swagger on its head and shattering decades of stale girl-band stereotypes. Last year, their entire catalog was re-released in a must-have box set, and now they’re back with a powerful new record. This is no nostalgia trip: No Cities To Love might be their best work yet.

The punches come early and often. “Price Tag” calls out modern materialist culture with an angular, stacatto intensity, while “Surface Envy” tears the house down with a blistering Brownstein guitar riff and Corin Tucker’s soaring, howling-wolf vocal on an instant-classic chorus. You couldn’t call it a ballad, but the title track slows things down a bit, with Brownstein singing “I’ve grown afraid of everything that I love.”

The raw power keeps coming. “A New Wave” rocks the frenetic postpunk disaffection with thunderous results, while “No Anthems” paces the floor nervously before breaking into a distorted fury. The band’s power-trio dynamic has never sounded better, with a full, bass-heavy production that feels almost like a live show. “Fade” closes it out with sludgy guitars and a haunting do-not-go-gentle wail. “Tell me what do you see on the last script/yeah it’s a trip, what’s it all for?” Tucker sings. “If we are truly dancing our show, darling, shake it like never before.” Here’s hoping No Cities is no swan song, but just the start of more to come.

Meghan Trainor | Title | Epic Records | 3halfstars

“All About That Bass” was the surprise hit of 2014, but is that sassy anthem destined to be a MeghanTrainorone-hit wonder? Not if Meghan Trainor has anything to say about it. It feels like it took forever, but her debut album is here at last, and it’s packed with old-school harmonies and feisty girl-power anthems that are too fun to resist.

The retro-‘50s vibe is everywhere. “Dear Future Husband” has it down to a science, with a finger-snapping doo-wop arrangement and a list of marching orders for prospective future Mr. Trainors. The fellas are on her mind a lot, actually; from “Mr. Almost” to “Lips Are Movin’”, it’s all about the boys.

Trainor’s at her best on the power ballads. “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” might be the album’s finest track, a surprising (and spectacular) duet with John Legend that puts some real feeling into the 5 & Diner poodle-skirt proceedings. And “3am” finds weary, party-girl Trainor drunk-dialing the ex, while “Close Your Eyes” revisits the body-positivity of “Bass” in a sweet, uplifting ballad that’s basically a rehash of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” but hey, we can all use the boost.

There are some missteps here, for sure; whoever thought “Bang Dem Sticks” was a good idea needs to take a cold-hard look at their lives, and “Walkashame” is pushing Trainor’s hard-partying lyrical sass to absurdity. Trainor works her retro “brand” to death at times, and musically, just about every song follows the same chord pattern that made Axis of Awesome’s hilarious “Four Chords” a YouTube smash. Despite the flaws, she’s got a winning charm that carries the day.

Mark Ronson | Uptown Special | Columbia | 4stars

Mark Ronson is probably best known as a producer of hits for artists as diverse as Adele, Paul MarkRonsonMcCartney, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars and Lana Del Rey. But Ronson is an artist in his own right, on par with his famous clientele, and here on his fourth album he brings a soulful style and dynamite grooves to a great set of songs – with a bevy of guest stars to seal the deal.

Look no further than Bruno Mars, who sets “Uptown Funk” moving with an irresistible ‘80s funk jam that ranks as one of Mars’ finest moments. It’s a smash, and deservedly so. Mystikal waxes lyrical wildness on “Feel Right,” while the legendary Stevie Wonder opens and closes the record with gorgeous deep-soul harmonica solos; it’s just a shame he’s not singing as well. But it’s not just music legends at work here; Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, not previously known for his work in pop music, contributes lyrics.

Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker contributes surprisingly tender vocals to “Daffodils” as well as the ruminating, seedy “Summer Breaking,” bringing Chabon’s evocative, psych-noir lyrics to life. Ronson’s restless appetite for variety drives the set all over the place, from hits like the Mars track and the equally great “I Can’t Lose” to weird, jazzy interpolations that recall Steely Dan’s ‘70s peak. Andrew Wyatt’s sweet vocal on “Heavy and Rolling” captures that vibe best. Ronson keeps the groove rolling on throughout, making Uptown Special an eclectic treat.