After nine years away, the influential punk trio return hungry and energetic with a set of short, taut, lethal tunes
In 2000, Sleater-Kinney were interviewed on a long-forgotten American teenage TV show called Trackers. As you can see for yourself on YouTube, the hapless host asks spectacularly mundane questions, but she does at least offer the then Olympia, Washington-based (they now live in Portland) trio the chance to explain their motivations clearly. Firmly, Carrie Brownstein, one of Sleater-Kinney’s two singer-guitarists, says, “we need this”, and to hear ‘No Cities To Love’, the band’s first album since 2005, is to sense their return is driven by the same fundamental necessity.
They certainly have nothing left to prove: their catalogue of seven albums in 10 years (beginning with their self-titled debut in 1995 and all recently remastered) is among the most consistent and culturally vital in all of punk rock, and it’s hardly like they went out on a whimper – for many fans, and for Brownstein herself, their greatest album was their last one, ‘The Woods’, produced by Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips). And it’s not like they’re reforming out of boredom: since they went on indefinite hiatus in 2006, the band’s exemplary drummer Janet Weiss played in her previous band, Quasi, and Stephen Malkmus’ Jicks, as well as being a member of Wild Flag, alongside Brownstein. Brownstein also co-created and stars in the ongoing hit TV show, Portlandia, while Corin Tucker, now a mother of two, released a pair of well-received solo albums in 2010 and 2012. Rather, as Brownstein told NPR recently: “We have to really want it. And you have to feed that hunger and have the energy to.” All of a sudden, they “need” Sleater-Kinney again.
From the outset, ‘No Cities To Love’, produced by long-time collaborator John Goodmanson, reeks of confidence. Opener ‘Price Tag’ is a thunderous rant against consumerism. The second song ‘Fangless’ concerns a man once “a saviour, a mountain”, now “flimsy and fangless, drooping and drowned”. Devastatingly, it ends with: “You were born in a shout/But you will die in a silent skull”.
If Sleater-Kinney – who combine the political ire of Bikini Kill with the musical inventiveness of Minutemen and the pop nous of The B-52s – have a trademark, it’s the double vocal/guitar attack of Tucker and Brownstein and also their dedication to never repeating themselves. Where ‘The Woods’ was dense and loose – proggy even, by the standards of punk rock – the songs on ‘No Cities To Love’ are short, taut and lethal, harking back, if anything, to their earliest albums. But they’re more complete songwriters now, and there isn’t a track on ‘No Cities To Love’ that doesn’t have a killer chorus. “We win! We lose!/Only together do we break the rules”, yell Tucker and Brownstein on ‘Surface Envy’, a brazen celebration of what it means to be back. Elsewhere, they lay themselves bare, tackling ennui on the Gang Of Four-like ‘A New Wave’, need (‘Gimme Love’), self-respect (‘Bury Our Friends’) and death (‘Fade’).
“We want the songs to be daunting,” Weiss has said about this record, and there’s nothing about it that screams foul. It’s heavy, assured and profound – a terrific record alone, but also one that sits in the Sleater-Kinney catalogue naturally, like they’ve never been away. Enjoy it for what it is, and if it provides an entry point to discover their other albums, all the better – you’ve got a feast ahead.