Just a reminder that the top 100 prospects package will appear on ESPN.com next week for Insiders, running from January 28th to the 30th. I’ll chat on the 29th (but not this week), the day that the top 100 itself goes up.
Regardless of the actual quality of the album, Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love (also on iTunes) was going to garner rave reviews from critics and fans who were just happy that the trio was back after a nine-year absence from recording. It didn’t matter whether their sound had changed, whether they could still write great hooks, whether Corin Tucker could still sing, as long as they were still Sleater-Kinney, because that band and that name stood for something, although for what it stood probably depended on where you were standing – independent music, anti-corporatism, feminism, LGBT issues, sometimes stuff the band themselves never openly espoused. They never experienced commercial success commensurate with their critical standing, perhaps in part because of Tucker’s deliberately abrasive vocal style, but also because they never did much to court it. Their breakup in 2006 and move into other projects, notably Carrie Brownstein’s career as an actress (co-creating Portlandia with Fred Armisen – go Thinkers!), only served to heighten their legend, with Brooklyn Vegan promising to play a Sleater-Kinney track on its Sirius XMU show each week until the band reunited. By 2014, Sleater-Kinney was an idea rather than a pretty good, defunct punk band.
That makes it all the more gratifying that their album No Cities to Love, released on Tuesday on Sub Pop, is such a tight, sophisticated, hook-filled record, sophisticated without becoming staid, more of a second take on the Sleater-Kinney sound than more of the same they gave us through their first half-dozen albums. There’s a cleaner sound throughout the record, better production quality combined with less distortion on the guitars (Sleater-Kinney has never used a bass guitar, ironic since that’s often what the token girl plays in male-fronted rock bands), which means the songs are carried by memorable riffs, layered vocals, and non-traditional (for them) drum patterns. Tucker’s vocals are just as intense and emotional as ever, but it’s a lot easier to pick up what she’s saying and to distinguish each vocal or guitar track within a song.
Lead single “Bury Our Friends,” my #12 song of 2014, gave a strong preview of this slight shift in Sleater-Kinney’s direction – angst-ridden yet hopeful, stomping through the chorus (“exhume our idols/bury our friends”), driven both by one of Brownstein’s strongest riffs ever and some intricate drumwork from Janet Weiss. Weiss’ role on the album may be the most pleasant surprise, as she’s expanded her style and is mixed more toward the front; “Fangless,” which opens almost like a prog-rock track that’s made a small withdrawal from the jazz machine, would go nowhere without Weiss’ syncopated percussion lines. You can hear throughout Cities why Weiss has been in such demand from other indie rock acts during Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus.
Album opener “Price Tag” serves both as one of the album’s best tracks and a transitional song to reintroduce old listeners to the band’s slight shift in direction while bringing new fans immediately into the fold, building up a store of potential energy in the verses before exploding into a chorus where Tucker sounds like she’s still holding a little piece of rage in reserve for future use. “Surface Envy” completes the opening troika by paradoxically turning a descending scale into a memorable riff, I think primarily because of how it ends in a crash between Brownstein’s power chords and Weiss’s pulsating drums, an aural waterfall hitting the rocks and splashing everywhere. “No Anthems” borrows a little from stoner rock to underlie Tucker’s introspective lyrics, evincing some nostalgia for the band’s former, reluctant role as standard-bearers for the riot grrl movement. The album’s only real stumble, “Hey Darling,” a stab at power-pop that sounds wrong coming from Tucker’s lungs, gives way quickly to the melancholy closer “Fade,” which alludes to pre-grunge sounds from Mudhoney and Soundgarden in the first movement, after which Weiss powershifts into a march for the bridge, leading into Brownstein’s pedal-point riff that drives the reprise of the first third to close out the song and the album. It’s the most ornate song on Cities, the right way to finish an album that would otherwise have been split in two by its complexity amidst a run of tighter, faster tracks.
I was never fully on board with the hype around Sleater-Kinney, because I thought they were more of A Really Important Thing than a producer of great tracks, which may color my impression of No Cities to Love … but it’s my favorite album by the band, by a huge margin. This is the kind of album we would hope middle-aged punks could produce after some time away from their main act, but that very few artists are capable of pulling off.
If you’re a fan of Sleater-Kinney, I highly recommend this Pitchfork feature story on the band, with many enlightening comments from the band members on the direction of this latest album. I also suggest you check out the 2013 album Silence Yourself by Savages, who walk the same paths first plowed by bands like Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, and 7 Year Bitch.