opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
It still makes me a little crazy that there are people for whom Carrie Brownstein is famous not for being a founding member of Sleater-Kinney, one of America’s greatest rock acts, but the co-creator of a loving (and at times stinging) television satire of her band’s core demographic. This turn of events, so bizarre and poetic, is unprecedented in the history of popular music. Imagine the following hypothetical scenario. After R.E.M. took a break in the mid-80s, Peter Buck became the star of a culturally significant sketch comedy show about the weirdos and misfits who populate an arty college town in the South. Let’s call it Athenia. And then, almost ten years later, he and his bandmates returned with Document, a career highpoint, seemingly out of thin air.
Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss find themselves in this very position with the arrival of their superb eighth LP. The planet has spun on its axis and traveled around the sun more than a few times since we’ve last heard from Sleater-Kinney. Only, you wouldn’t know it by listening to No Cities to Love. It’san album so blazing, so vital, and so heart-quickening that being Out of Time is, perhaps, its single best asset. No Cities lacks any antecedents apart from its seven elder siblings, all overachievers.
Sleater-Kinney 1.0 took an “indefinite hiatus” back in 2006. It was a crushing loss, one that came in the wake of the band’s zenith. The Woods was a yowling homage to classic rock, particularly the sub-genre’s excesses and glories. For a group known for ruthless concision, that sprawling record was the culmination of multiple factors and forces: a close personal and professional relationship with Pearl Jam, a natural progression toward ever more sophisticated musicianship, a songwriting process that evolved into a whole lot of jamming.
I revisited Sleater-Kinney’s discography in-depth late last year, shortly after the release of the remastered career retrospective Start Together. What surprised me most wasn’t how much I still adored the scrappy power of Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out, but how far upward the band rocketed after The Hot Rock (a fine album that continues to leave me a bit chilly). The trifecta of All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat, and, of course, The Woods ranks among the hottest streaks in the last three decades of music. Full stop. The most recent rival would be 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and, of course, Yeezus. To be sure, this comparison only further validates Kanye’s brilliance, not the other way around.
Sleater-Kinney 2.0 arrives pared to bone and muscle, deliberately tuneful and buoyant, and yet truculent and spiky. No Cities to Love doesn’t contain a single tune that breaks the four-minute mark, a stark departure from The Woods, whose tracks veered into Zeppelin-esque territory. The new album hurtles by in just over half an hour, but per-minute, No Cities packs one atomic payload after another. Tucker and Brownstein remain fluent in their unique pig latin of words and guitar, reacting to one another effortlessly. Weiss’ battering and incessant drumming provides a bed of lockstep snare fills and cymbal crashes. The three intermingle seamlessly, as always, in the same way wandering storm clouds construct a hurricane. And like a swirling atmospheric phenomenon, Sleater-Kinney persist as a devastating force of nature.
No Cities to Love represents a union of Sleater-Kinney’s past, a fiery rebirth from riot grrrl ashes. Every S-K album is represented here — the early roar, the eventual popcraft, and ultimately, the technical virtuosity. Tucker and Brownstein’s lyrics make this connection explicit, with No Cities being, foremost, a reflexive celebration of their return to music making (see, for example, the one-two punch of “A New Wave” and “No Anthems”). The personal (“Hey Darling”) and the political (“Price Tag”) find their way in, but No Cities is more interested in the professional (which, in this hall of mirrors, also consists of the personal and political). Winking references come in rapid-fire succession, keeping the album’s thematic scope from being much more than a self-conscious comeback. Still, what a breathless — and breathtaking — comeback it is.
Over time No Cities becomes, not just a collection of earworms, but a remorseless facehugger. Try and escape its spindly grasp at your own peril. This brief album is sequenced to reach twin peaks: first, the descending eighth-note cascade of “Surface Envy,” and later, the half-time stomp of “Bury Our Friends.” No Cities’ rising action includes crunchy guitar licks (“A New Wave”), sun-kissed harmonies (“Fangless”), sneaky grooves (“No Anthems”), hiccuping punk flourishes (“Gimme Love”), and stunning vocal melodies that both spar (“Price Tag”) and join in unison (“No Cities to Love”). Corin Tucker reigns over the denouement, a needling All Hands throwback (“Hey Darling”) and a thunderous mid-tempo singalong (“Fade”).
The Woods remains Sleater-Kinney’s grandest statement. The trio, however, triumphs in short bursts of joy, rage, and those lesser, in-between emotions. No Cities to Love replaces its predecessor’s sweep with blood, fire, and melody. If you’d asked me a year ago to imagine the Platonic ideal of another Sleater-Kinney album, it would sound nothing like this. Lord, what fools we mortals be! A-