A new trip down Sleater-Kinney Road

Bands reunite for all kinds of reasons. Often you know it's because there is money to be made, and since we all need to make at least some money, who can blame them—unless they crank out swill, which they won't for long. Sometimes it's because the band was the best thing the members had. Sometimes it's because they never actually broke up but just went on indefinite hiatus. Sometimes it's just because playing together is incredibly fun.

If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt as to why they reunited, it's Sleater-Kinney. They've earned it. Over the course of seven albums and a few smaller releases, Sleater-Kinney established themselves as one of the Important Bands—bands we knew would always matter, bands other bands wish they were. Like the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, the Clash, the Pixies, PJ Harvey. Like Nirvana.

No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney's first album of new material in 10 years, kicks off with "Price Tag." It's not exactly an explosive beginning. The song is forceful but more full of bluster than power. Toward the end, it feels long. The lyrics aren't especially clever. "Fangless" starts more promising with a great intro beat from drummer Janet Weiss. This song reminds me of Corin Tucker's solo work, which is good but not nearly as distinctive as the best Sleater-Kinney. I do like Tucker's singing on this one, as I usually do. I often do not like Carrie Brownstein's singing, and this song is no exception. After two songs, this album is feeling too conventional.

"Surface Envy" catches my ear immediately. Great chorus! An enthusiastic thumb up for this one. "No Cities to Love" starts like it might be another strong one. It's catchy and has a good chorus, but it's not nearly as engaging as "Surface Envy." "A New Wave" feels like all the parts are there but somehow it doesn't create a great song. I do want to allow Sleater-Kinney room to be different. I wouldn't want them to reunite only to do what they had done already. The question is whether their current direction is great or not.

"No Anthems" gets me more excited. Glad we're back to Tucker singing. It's not just that she has a better voice than Brownstein. She also uses it better to express herself. This is kind of a deep cut, but it's a good one, and it has a strong chorus. "Gimme Love" is more of Tucker stretching in new directions, and I like what I hear.

"Bury Our Friends" got me moving right away. Points to Brownstein for this song! The bridge is a bit unimaginative, but does provide a texture change. "Hey Darling" makes me think of "A New Wave." Again, nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't thrill me. Maybe I'm not on board with all of this direction change. Or maybe this was just the throwaway ninth song that Kim Shattuck of the Muffs warns about.

"Face" ends the album in an interesting way. It starts slow and powerful, then picks up. I like this ending. I also noticed when this song started that it came up quickly on me, as in, "Oh, we're almost done already?" So even though I have some whines, the album does keep me engaged.

I want to listen to some reference material. I do not queue up Dig Me Out. We all know that's a classic, and I don't want to set the bar too high. Instead I listen to All Hands on the Bad One and The Hot Rock. I notice that both of the albums feel more urgent. They both grab me right away, especially All Hands. Killer chorus after killer chorus, great duets, great guitar interplay, and an undeniable edge.

If No Cities to Love feels less urgent, maybe that's to be expected. You can keep making music as long as you live, but you can't keep being young, at least not chronologically. As you get older, you have experiences, you change. Whatever else is going on in your life, you're no longer touring and living with each other for many months of a year.

I do not, however, think that it's inevitable for a band to make less urgent music. It depends on how urgent the band members feel. As someone for whom playing music is vital, I think all rock music should be urgent, that you should play it as though your life depended on it. That's what the best theatre is like. It thrills you and makes you shout "Brava!" I would love it if someone would make music as though it mattered, because to me, it fucking well does and always shall. Sleater-Kinney used to make music like that. I shouldn't be too hard on them if they're not now. I'm not sure that anyone can any longer.

(If you don't know...there is an actual Sleater-Kinney Road in (or near) Olympia, Washington. On it the band had a practice space. From it they took their name.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

NCTL has grown on me - the band's sound changes with every album (part of their awesomeness), and I have to go "okay, what are you up to this time?"

"Price Tag" to me is the only weak song on the album, so I agree it's not a strong start. But I'm curious if you've come to like the other songs better on repeated listening. Thanks for the review!