posted: January 13, 2015
Sleater-Kinney stopped touring in 2006. Then came the comedy.
Underground heroes from the early to late 90s, Sleater-Kinney, intentionally or not, felt like an answer to a male-dominated alt-rock scene of the Pacific Northwest.The all-female group’s punk-rock affronts led the riot grrl movement with a pair of chopped up guitars that—for believers—functioned as a call to arms.
The trio hasn’t released an album since 2005’s The Woods, a loud and brash lashing at societal anxiety. Sleater-Kinney quietly faded, but respect for the band only swelled. That’s due in part to guitarist Carrie Brownstein, whose work with “Saturday Night Live” alum Fred Armisen on the television show “Portlandia” pokes fun at our newfound tendency to place artisanal culture on a pedestal. “Portlandia” emerged as a revelation for Sleater-Kinney fans. Bandmates Janet Weiss and Corin Tucker made cameos, and suddenly the dead-serious band appeared to have a lighter side. Sleater-Kinney’s return, however, is no laughing matter.
No Cities to Love, the group’s first recorded work in a decade, isn’t the sound of a band taking a victory lap. “Bury your idols,” Sleater-Kinney challenges listeners on the first single, “Bury Our Friends,” which seemingly appeared out of nowhere late last year. The accompanying 32-minute album follows suit by taking a look around America and not finding all that much to laugh about. Even by Sleater-Kinney standards, it’s abrasive—a 10-song, ballad-free effort that’s rock n’ roll at its most impatient.
The us-versus-them vibe begins at the onset. Lyrically and sonically, this is combustible music, be it the rabid dog and broken limbs of “Fangless,” the scratching-for-a-fight chorus of “Surface Envy,” or the threat that the powerful “should really look down” on “No Anthems.” It’s also noisy, but guitars are pushed to their creative limits, mimicking a low-down bass one song, a groovy synth the next, or building to an all-out flare-up (often). Weiss, caught in the middle between the guitars of Brownstein and Tucker, assumes the unenviable role of juggling chaos.
The two guitars on “Fangless” sound like two lit fuses, one snaking its way to the bomb and the other zigzagging, with the rhythm kicking and bouncing to keep the explosion at bay for as long as possible. “Price Tag” makes it clear Sleater-Kinney came back with something to say. Tucker takes us through the day in the life of the debt-ridden: The clothes are too tight, the kids want non-generic cereal, and the good jobs are gone. Musically, it feels like a wrestling match with pounding drums, guitar clang, and a finale that’s on high alert as the voices of Tucker and Brownstein briefly sync before going stepping back in the ring.
The clenched-fest edge persists until the title track, on which Sleater-Kinney provides a sing-along chorus. But don’t get comfortable. “I’ve grown afraid of everything that I love,” Brownstein declares. Even, perhaps, her band, as Sleater-Kinney doesn’t appear above addressing its hiatus and plays with something to prove. As evidence, “Gimme Love” emerges as a scattershot collection of intense vocals and wiry instrumentation while the venomous “A New Wave” uses fuzzy, highly caffeinated guitars to “invent our own kind of obscurity.” Just in case, you know, no one is listening the second time around.
And then comes the surprising “Hey Darling,” a rock song that feels like a long-lost pop nugget, complete with Tucker skipping along to the beat with a series of “la-da-das.” It’s a love song, but a paranoid one, as the narrator resists the temptation to explore a partner’s smart phone. Even at its most musically lighthearted, No Cities to Love is still volatile and more important, irrepressibly vital.–Todd Martens