Written by Bennett Henderson
Alright, Sleater Kinney 2.0, here we go.
Anyone not familiar?
Well, maybe you know Portlandia, where Carrie Brownstein stars with Fred Armisen in their witty and whimsical sketch comedy about life in Portland, Oregon. It’s a good show—you should watch it—but this isn’t about that:
This is about Sleater Kinney.
What of Sleater Kinney?
Well, Sleater Kinney is a Washington-based post-punk rock trio who rock as hard or harder than any male outfit out there.
More, they do it on their own terms and in a style that is uniquely theirs. From 1994 to 2005, from Call the Doctor to All Hands on the Bad One to The Woods, they produced more great music than might reasonably be expected from any band.
Of course, as fans know, after 10 awesome years, they shut things down and, really, with the discography they left us, we shouldn’t have been left wanting or forlorn…
Yet, now, in 2015, they’re giving us a new album anyway and guess what:
If you’ve read any other reviews, you’ll know I’m hardly the first to say so.
The album is No Cities to Love and in it, once again, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss have done what they’re best at; retaining the unique ethos of Sleater Kinney while at the same time crafting something that is unquestionably new, raw and different.
Are disjointed guitars, wailing vocals and furious drum-fills not for you?
Well, I’d say stop reading (and that I immediately don’t like you) but, really, you might just want to listen to this album anyway because, if there’s any band that can show you the magic of juxtaposition, tension and playing the wrongs notes at the right time, it’s this one.
That’s why, in some ways, No Cities to Love is both All Hands on the Bad One and One Beat.
There’s pop-love and there’s also that metered math-rock audacity; curious and vulgar harmony lurking in the noise—in the notes that shouldn’t sound good against one and other but somehow do anyway.
Track no. 3, “Surface Envy”, is a good example of what I’m talking about here; even better ones are “Bury Our Friends” and “No Anthems”—check out Janet’s drumming those tracks.
As others have noted, Corin doesn’t sing as much on this one. If you loved The Woods, that might be a subject of some dismay but, rest assured, she still as her moments, such as those on “Fangless“.
How are the guitars?
It’s talked about enough elsewhere that I’ll only make short mention of it here: Corin and Carrie have a way of both sonically assaulting and complimenting one another at once—creating spiralling and lilting harmonies with just enough distance to be interesting.
Again, it’s that tension they manage to cultivate—surging in it before pulling it all together in pounding melodic choruses. Those of you with intimate knowledge of the band will know what I’m talking about, since it’s at the very core of who Sleater Kinney are. However, the strength of No Cities to Love’s guitar comes also though Carrie and Corin’s use of noise and off-kilter, slanted, crunchy tones—as if they listened to a few Sonic Youth records and were able to go straight to the core of what Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were on about. Check out “A New Wave“ to see what I mean.
So, guitars aside, what’s the spirit of the album?
Well, if you know the band, for the most part, these girls don’t write songs about peaches, rose petals and getting married.
The girls of Sleater Kinney aren’t always political—but they usually are.
The girls of Sleater Kinney aren’t always tongue-in-cheek, sardonic and discontented—but they usually are.
I mean, first, it’s punk. Second, we’re talking about modern, educated, feminist women with a political consciousness; surprise, surprise: a little dysphoria is on the menu.
That’s not uncharacteristic.
What is characteristic is that it’s artfully done.
The opening track, “Price Tag“, is a cutting and poignant example of Sleater Kinney’s political consciousness. Yet, No Cities to Love is somehow a little more personal than previous albums; certainly than The Woods. Perhaps that’s because No Cities to Love’s themes are not predominantly grounded in problems of institutions and gender inequality; there are themes too of aging and of persistence in the face of a changing world—in the of the visible mortality of musical greats who have recently left us.
While “Bury Our Friends“ and “Fade“ capture the above sentiments with effect, “No Anthems” grapples with the uncertainty of our time and our place in the world. “No Cities to Love“, the title track, shows our declining sense of rootedness and identity through place in a globalized world; as Carrie and Corin talk of atomic tourists and ritual emptiness, they eventually wail, “There are no cities / no cities to love / it’s not the cities it’s the weather we love.”
In summation, this is a great album—both as a whole and by the songs that assemble it.
Importantly though, No Cities to Love is not an album that pays homage to past accomplishments. It is an album that stands alone, harnessing the strengths of past efforts to press on into something new. It is a riot grrrl, post-punk rock album from a band that began in 1994, ended in 2006 and reconstituted itself in 2015. Yet, it is also an album that is staggeringly contemporary, present, engaging and, like all great albums, challenging.
As a fan, personally, I’ve found that while the album began strong, it’s only improved through successive listens. That’s because No Cities to Love is not window-dressing; it’s not music to feel good while you’re driving; it’s not music that’s going to help get you laid; it’s not music designed to turn your unpleasant mood into a pleasant one and it’s not music as background—it’s music for it’s own sake—with prowess, fury and feeling.
Give it your attention and you’ll be rewarded.