In Brief: Sometimes you just need a fun, noisy, in-your-face, no-nonsense blast of rock & roll. Sleater-Kinney’s comeback record passes that test easily. I may not know much else about their history, but hey, I had to start somewhere.
I’m about to write a review that I’m not entirely comfortable calling a “review”. It’s one of those situations where, on a whim, I checked out a band that’s become almost legendary in certain circles over the years, not knowing much about them other than “Hey, one of their band members did this other thing that I like”, and I ended up enjoying what I heard to the point where I’ve gone back to it over and over for several months now, and so I want to document the enjoyment I’m getting out of it. I can’t pretend to offer much in terms of critical analysis when I can’t compare it to what this band sounded like before, and when there’s really no purpose in telling long-time fans what to think of a comeback album that they probably all snatched up the day it was released. You’d know I wasn’t fooling anybody. Might as well not try.
The band in question is Sleater-Kinney. The album in question is No Cities to Love, the indie/punk-rock trio’s first new disc in an entire decade. The “other thing that I like” in this case is the sketch show Portlandia, starring guitarist and singer Carrie Brownstein, and while I’m definitely endeared to the slew of offbeat characters and surreal in-jokes that she and Fred Armisen regularly conjure up on that show, only on occasion does it give me a glimpse into her musical leanings. I checked out her one-off project Wild Flag a few years ago as I was first getting into the show (which I suppose means I also have a little prior experience with drummer Janet Weiss), and I fell in love with the raucous lead track “Romance”, but the rest of it didn’t really do it for me. Her gruff vocals kind of had to grow on me, too – but then, it’s punk rock. If you’re expecting neat and pretty, you’re not only in the wrong department, you’re in the wrong freaking store. As it turns out, when you throw Corin Tucker (herself an acquired taste of a vocalist, but an incredibly attention-grabbing one for sure) back into the mix, you get the same basic style but everything seems punched up a little more – the melodies are gnarly and yet catchy as hell, the twin guitar attack can get your head bobbing just so you won’t suspect their next attempt to melt your face off, and the drums are just relentless. Everyone is on point, and they sound like they’re having a great time. I’m sure there are a lot of little details you could analyze beyond that, but don’t think about it too hard, because these ladies make not sounding like any other band (at least, not any that I can think of) seem effortlessly easy.
No Cities to Love is one of those records where, if you like the first handful of songs, you’ll probably like pretty much everything the record has to offer. The songs are all stylistically similar on the surface, and yet they distinguish themselves in interesting ways as you listen more closely. The tempos are generally upbeat and defiant, and the whole thing blows by in a scant 32 minutes. I might normally prefer for albums to be a bit longer, but there’s something to be said about making your point and not being overly long-winded about it. (Admittedly, this isn’t a skill that I personally possess.) It may not be the style of music where my jaw drops and I spout off a bunch of superlatives, but it can be a hell of a pick-me-up during an afternoon slump at the office or an otherwise mundane commute. Not that the music is commonplace and everyday. It’s just that I like how it marries some of the oldest tricks in the rock music handbook with these twisted, ear-piercing sounds that somehow make the whole thing that much more delightful when you grow accustomed to the dissonance. “Three chords and the truth” might be a punk rock mantra, but “Twist everything around to the point where you’re not sure exactly what the chords are” can work wonders, too.
Lyrically, this isn’t one of those records with any delusions of world-changing grandeur. A lot of the songs on No Cities to Love seem to be concerned with what relevance aging rock stars might still have in a fickle scene where tastes are constantly changing, and at times they even seem to question whether those old glory days were all they were cracked up to be. Not so much in a cynical way, but just out of a desire to not make more out of it than it was, as if to say, “That was fun then, and this is fun now, and we’re not the saviors of any person or scene, we’re just calling the world around us as we see it.” It’s a good balance. It keeps the darker moments on the record from getting too morbid, and the lighter moments from getting too sugary. Unlike the cartoonish hipsters and other oddball denizens with startlingly specific tastes that Brownstein parodies on Portlandia, there’s no pretense here. No sense of exclusivity. Perhaps that’s why it’s so appealing to me, as an outsider who had never heard the band before. You can just casually jump in anywhere, and it feels like they’re just as stoked to have you in the crowd as they were for the first people who showed up to hear them play in some garage ages ago. I could drag out that analogy, but I think that sets the scene well enough. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
1. Price Tag
The first track offers a good example of pretty much everything I enjoy about this record. Corin’s rhythm guitar buzzes along, almost like a modified bass, while Carrie’s lead guitar swoops in and out rather chaotically at times, punching up the performance in all the right places. Janet’s drums go from nervously rattling through the verses, to relentlessly stomping their way through the chorus, to all sorts of fun fills and spills in between. Corin’s vocals are urgent and charismatic, and her melody manages to be quite unpredictable with its sudden key changes, and yet deliciously catchy once you get the hang of it. The lyrics may as well sum up “What have you ladies been doing for the last ten years?”, as they struggle with a changing economy in fits and starts, adjusting rather uncomfortably to the daily drag of a 9-5 job and questioning whether this system is doing right by a younger generation that’s never known anything else. We just sort of take for granted that this is how America works nowadays, but the song nags us about whether we should buy into that system without really asking what it will cost us – not just in terms of money, but in terms of our soul and our will to keep on living. I’m making it sound more depressing than it actually is. It’s actually quite fun, for what I’m assuming is basically a protest song.
Janet’s infectiously beat here may be one of the most delightful sounds on a record that’s got it’s fair share of exciting musical moments. It’s one of those things where I can’t tell if it’s parodying the tendency of indie rock bands to alarm their fans by morphing into a poppier, more danceable version of themselves, or if it’s embracing it unironically, because screw it, it’s fun! Not that the band has gone synthetic by any stretch of the imagination – a little bit of synth worms its way into the background, perhaps just to troll us, but this is still a live-drum-and-guitar driven song by a long shot. Corin and Carrie trade off vocals here as they dismantle a former musical idol of theirs, decrying how toothless and uninspired some they formerly idolized has become. Somewhat grudgingly, Carrie admits, “But I know that you made me; I’m sick for you like a rabid dog.” It’s an interesting choice for a comeback album, because whoever they’re singing about has clearly been a huge influence on them, and there’s probably some degree of self-awareness here, as if they realize how many young musicians now look up to them, and might be prepared to turn on them at a moment’s notice if they change some slight aspect of their sound or message that can be construed in any way as “selling out”. I almost see the danceable nature of this song as a sneering “so what?” to those sorts of fairweather fans, but there’s a real uneasiness to this one, as if to say they’ve been on both sides of that equation.
3. Surface Envy
Of course my favorite song from this record was going to be one of its lead singles. I’ll admit to being totally predictable in that department. And while the band’s got a much more straightforward hook here, both in terms of its strong chorus and its triumphant guitar riffing, there’s also a lot of scribbling between the lines here due to how animated Corin gets in front of the mic, and how bat-doo-doo crazy some of Carrie’s guitar soloing is if you really listen for it underneath the more melodic elements of the song. This song is like throwing the cellar doors wide open and facing into the bright sun after a long period of darkness, dazed and blinking, but totally confident that you’ve come back to life and you feel better than ever about it. And I can’t help but be caught up in their proud declaration: “We win! We lose! Only together do we break the rules!”
4. No Cities to Love
The title track, while a fun anthem in its own right, isn’t quite as strong of a centerpiece as I was hoping it would be. Not that it’s even fair for me to come into this with any specific expectations… there’s just something about the central idea of this song that means well, but doesn’t seem to be communicated as well as the band hoped to. The basic idea of it seems to be growing jaded about the things you’ve always loved and thought superior to everything else, like your hometown (just ask any sports fan). As the chorus puts it, “It’s not the cities, it’s the weather we love.” Then later, it stumbles a bit by going back on that with a more cynical interpretation, “It’s not the weather, it’s the nothing we love”, before finally adjusting it to the more optimistic “It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love.” Think about what someone really means when they say they love a city, and there’s probably some truth to it – we like the climate and the comfort we feel about living there, and the people who give it culture, generally more so than the physical buildings or government or whatever officially defines a “city”. I just think this point could have been phrased a bit better. Musically, Carrie takes the lead on this one, and her idiosyncratic guitar lives and her fun little yelps in the chorus make it the kind of thing you can easily go back to and sing along with time and time again (as seen in the adorable, albeit not terribly listenable, music video). Her stilted vocal delivery in the verses, that are nearly more spoken than sung, doesn’t do it for me as much, but ultimately, I do still enjoy the song.
5. A New Wave
Due to the irresistible chemistry between these three women, I’m never tempted to claim any one of them as the superior talent of the three, but there are moments where someone really stands out in a way that tempts me to do so. Janet pretty much owns this song, despite being the only person in the band who never (as far as I can tell, anyway) gets to sing lead. She just creates such a solid four-on-the-floor groove here, switching to a looser, more syncopated half-time beat on the chorus, that it seems like she’s defining the framework of the song while the others build it up around her. Not that anyone’s a slouch here. Carrie takes the lead for most of the song, and her twisted, thorny guitar licks wrap themselves quite nicely around janet’s scaffolding, and then she and Corin come together for a powerful chorus: “No one here is taking notice/No outline will ever hold us/It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me/Eyes are the only witness/Die to prove we ever lived this/Invent our own kind of obscurity.” I love the entire thing, but especially that last line, since they seem baffled at the hipster notion that how obscure something might be is is what makes it great, or really even the idea of a “scene” as a thing to be excited about in and of itself. I sense the total lack of pretense more here than on any other song, because this one basically says screw labels, screw movements, screw anything that excludes people from someone’s definition of the in-crowd, because we just want to make music and have a blast doing that, and the experience of that music is the historical document, not the lore that rises up around it. The bridge here is surprisingly intense for an otherwise upbeat song, with the guitars and the manic drum fills melting into a whirlpool of special craziness before pulling back out for the final chorus. The only thing I could even think to critique here is the traditional fade-out at the end of the song, right where I was expecting something a little edgier to finish it off.
6. No Anthems
This was the song I had in mind when I made that “Twist everything around to the point where you’re not sure exactly what the chords are” wisecrack earlier. Carrie’s riffs at the beginning of this song are so twisted and gnarled that it’s actually kind of awesome. The song is sludgier and more visceral as a result of it, which I suppose it’s fitting since the lyrics are more downbeat than what we’ve heard so far on the record. Corin seems to be getting a message from the younger, more idealistic voice in her head, which is making her restless as it reminds her of the “anthems” she once sang and confronts her with the question of whether she’s let those passions fade over time. But that restlessness seems to have led her to a personal renaissance, which turns the final chorus from a lament for what once was into a desire to recapture it in the future.
7. Gimme Love
I’m sort of relieved that this is the shortest track on the album, because it’s a rather repetitive and annoying one. I’m sure that individual opinions will vary – how could they not when you’re dealing with such a boisterous vocalist as Corin Tucker? The same line – “Gimme love, Gimme love, never enough!” is repeated several times in the chorus, without the melody changing much during the verse, so she keeps coming around to the same note over and over, which she yelps as loud as possible, and I’m sure some fans will find the sheer swagger of it appealing, but for me it’s a bit much. Just having fun and not thinking too hard about it probably was the band’s M.O. here, so I can’t say it’s a mistake per se; just a reminder that I don’t always understand the punk rock aesthetic that drives some of their material.
8. Bury Our Friends
A lot of the songs on this album have dealt with the notion of time passing and Sleater-Kinney re-entering the music scene in a much different era than the one they vanished from ten years ago, but this one really hits the nail on the head. Corin and Carrie intertwine here in an immensely satisfying way, from their twin guitar assault in the song’s triumphant riff, to their switching off vocals during the verse before coming together for the chorus. It’s almost as if the two took the same basic chords and melody and each wrote their on verses, then brought them back together into a song that makes both of their contributions sound absolutely vital. With just six words, the first line of the chorus speaks volumes: “Exhume our idols, bury our friends”. Do we idolize our favorite musicians and records to the point where nothing anyone does here and now can compete? Can a band that was beloved in its “classic” era make a comeback without sounded like has-beens? And do we view our own nostalgia through irrational, rose-colored glasses? The song goes on to elaborate quite a bit more about how “we live undead in our own gilded age”, as if to suggest that these ladies are not content to exist as mere statues of themselves. They want to live and breathe and change, and not be bound to someone’s graven image of who they were half a lifetime ago.
9. Hey Darling
This is the other “two-minute wonder” on the record, running a few mere seconds longer than “Gimme Love”, and I’d say this one falls into more straightforward “speedy rock anthem” territory without getting mired in the repetition that I didn’t like about that other song. Carrie seems to be trying to contact someone after a long period of not speaking, which sounds at the beginning like it’s going to be a lightweight, “getting back in touch with an old flame” sort of song, but I really think it’s more of a conversation between her and Corin about getting the band back together. Her refrain seems to reiterate the worries expressed in the previous song – “It seems to me the only thing that comes from fame is mediocrity. How could you steal the thing I love, then keep it from me, just out of touch?” (I’m assuming that Carrie sings the verses and Corin sings the refrain – sometimes it’s hard to tell with these two.) If my hunch about this songs’ origins is correct, then I think it’s kind of cool that they could use their hesitance about reuniting as material for a song on their comeback record, and that it could say so much in such a short amount of time.
The closing track, while still loud and boisterous, drops the tempo to more of an introspective level, matching some of the darkest lyrics on the record with a creepy, pitch-shifted vocal (which gets even creepier as the drums and the overall feel of the song turn surprisingly jittery in the second verse), peering into the black void that awaits once the stage lights have dimmed and the lookie-loos who just wanted to be part of some imaginary music scene have moved on to other interests. There’s a genuine fear expressed here, a sense that there might be no tomorrow and if so, what does all of this matter? I like how the lament “Oh, what a price that we paid” seems to wrap back around to the economic woes expressed in “Price Tag”, as if to say that spending their time onstage fronting as the saviors of rock and roll or something silly like that would just be a waste of their creative energy and, ultimately, their souls. The line “My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end” is certainly an unsettling way to end the record, but I can only imagine how much more unsettling this sort of a song might have been if it was the last thing fans heard from them before the ten-year hiatus. I actually find myself wishing this song took a little more time to build up the dread and then wind down. It’s the one track on the album where I feel like a brief three minutes and change doesn’t totally do it justice.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Price Tag $1.75
Surface Envy $2
No Cities to Love $1
A New Wave $1.75
No Anthems $1
Gimme Love $.25
Bury Our Friends $1.50
Hey Darling $1
Corin Tucker: Vocals, guitars
Carrie Brownstein: Vocals, guitars
Janet Weiss: Drums
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