Monday, January 19, 2015

Sleater-Kinney's No Cities to Love

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities Left to Love (Sub Pop)

This is not a comeback album by a beloved band that went on hiatus in 2006. (This is also not, if you’re just tuning in, a side project for that funny woman from Portlandia.) This is an album that makes me wonder if I’ve even enjoyed any guitar-rock records in the past nine years.

Sleater-Kinney were much more than just part of a movement and/or a moment in time. They meant a lot to a lot of people for a variety of reasons. Context is important: but it is not crucial (sayeth this dude). Sleater-Kinney were, are, a band: a band whose individual elements—like the myriad meanings projected upon them—add up to a much larger whole. They were, are, a powerhouse, one where the guitars and vocals of the two frontwomen, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, overlap and intertwine to create a new language. Drummer Janet Weiss does what the drummer in every great power trio—from Keith Moon to Neil Peart to Stewart Copeland—must do: take your two bandmates by the hand and charge out of the starting gate, tumbling all over each other toward the finish line, and pulling them both off the ground when they start running in different directions.

The second track here, "Fangless," is a song with shades of early 2000s dance-punk—a style Sleater-Kinney themselves avoided back then. Not surprising, then, that Weiss never places her snare hits where you think they should be; there is no four-on-the-floor bass drum and only occasional open hi-hat. It’s not about what she tacitly chooses not to play, or what she chooses to play in place of cliché: it’s that she achieves a familiar effect through entirely inventive ways. “Only together do we break the rules,” goes a lyric on “Surface Envy,” “only together do we make the rules.”

Ten years ago, Sleater-Kinney turned to producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips) to help them turn their template inside out on The Woods, tripping over all kinds of guitar pedals and surrendering to the ecstasy of sound. It worked more in theory than in execution—thankfully, The Woods is no longer the final chapter in Sleater-Kinney’s discography. By returning to John Goodmanson, who recorded the three best Sleater-Kinney albums until now (Dig Me Out, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat), the excesses of The Woods have been weeded out; the lessons learned in experimentation remain and are applied with precision to short, sharp songs.

No one has looked to guitarists for innovation in a long, long time; only Jack White (former Sleater-Kinney opening act, by the way) seems to pull out some surprising new tricks every once in a while. But White listens to old blues records that set up the traditions still emulated most today; Sleater-Kinney play like they’ve been soaking in the textures of ’60s psychedelia and the rhythm of ’70s post-punk, arguably the last time in history guitars had something new to say. White flexes his muscle primarily in guitar solos; Brownstein and Tucker flex their muscle in practically every musical choice they make. There is no lead or rhythm guitar. Remove one piece of this puzzle and it would fall apart. “No outline will ever hold us / it’s not a new wave / it’s just you and me.”

That’s always been true for Sleater-Kinney, but No Cities to Love finds Brownstein and Tucker elevating their game. It’s also, sadly, incredibly rare in rock these days to hear this kind of technique delivered live and raw and so obviously the sound of two people playing together—you know, in a room. At the same time. Staring each other in the eyes. Wrestling each note from the hands of the other.

Because Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss are all older and wiser (unbelievably, Weiss turns 50 this year) and never walked away from music—or each other—entirely, No Cities Left to Love is driven by a natural combustion. No time has passed at all. They’re as hungry as they were on Dig Me Out, but with the power and wisdom of fortysomethings who don’t have any time to mess around: go big or go home. It’s unlikely they’ll ever share the same chemistry with other musicians as they do with each other: no matter how good those musicians may be (Mary Timony with Brownstein in Wild Flag; Stephen Malkmus with Weiss in the Jicks).

After mid-life, after motherhood, after second careers inside and outside music, Sleater-Kinney kick more ass than they ever did. And they showed up not a minute too soon.

Download: “Surface Envy,” “No Cities to Love,” “Bury Our Friends”

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