Winter semester is upon us, and it makes a certain amount of sense that Portland, Ore., folk rock band the Decemberists and Scottish folk-rock-disco balladeers Belle & Sebastian would issue new musical texts on the same Tuesday in January.
Both acts have survived first-blush crushes and sophomore disappointments and earned followers through consistency, wit and insight. They've done so with foreign accents both real (singers Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin of Scotland's Belle & Sebastian) and acquired (Colin Meloy of the Decemberists), and craft artful, bespoke music that practically demands any review include at least one mention of Oscar-nominated director Wes Anderson.
In short, both the Decemberists and Belle & Sebastian have published enough critically praised (if at times overly precious) work to earn tenure, and their new albums confirm the determined confidence of scholars in exploration mode.
"What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World" is the Decemberists' seventh album and sees singer and songwriter Meloy in peak form. Paring back the early verboseness that resulted in twee titles like "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground" and "The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)," Meloy's new songs have a precision that suggests Gordon Lish had taken his editing knife to them. Simultaneously, the rest of the band expands and contracts at will, using banjos, mandolins, bowed strings, surprising rhythms and lots of guitars.
As with any Decemberists album, there are rough spots. "Anti-Summersong" is a sequel to "Summersong" from "The Crane Wife" and has a call-and-response part that's cringingly bad. Better is the self-referential opener, "The Singer Addresses His Audience," which starts soft but by the end has gathered an entire choir and pushed at the edges of academic propriety.
The result pulls the emotion to the surface, especially in the devastating "12/17/12," about the Newtown school shootings. It opens with a Neil Young-suggestive harmonica and a simple, minor-key melody. Meloy sings of parental devotion and devastation as only a parent can: "If you only knew how I long for you / How I waste my days wishing you would come around / Just to have you around."
Like the Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian on its ninth album, "Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance," advance a mostly Anglophiliac agenda. Murdoch, Jackson and Martin treat lyrics as vehicles for dance-friendly expository narratives and snapshot moments. "Nobody's Empire" is set at night: "Lying on my bed I was reading French / With the light too bright for my senses," sings Murdoch before unloading a dozen stanzas that unfurl like an ancient rhyme.
The glorious "Enter Sylvia Plath" isn't the pretentious dirge one might expect. Rather, it's a light, Giorgio Moroder-suggestive disco track. Ditto the extended jam "Play for Today," which is as close to an Erasure song as Belle & Sebastian has ever done. More absorbing is the album-closing meditation "Today (This Army's for Peace)," which is dense with perfectly arranged sound that seems to breathe as the song progresses.
"What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World"
Belle & Sebastian
"Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance"