In the annals of rock history, the tale of Sleater-Kinney is legendary: three young women, heavily influenced by the riot grrl movement in the Pacific Northwest, started a punky fem-rock band that transcended genre to become one of the most universally beloved indie acts of their generation. Across seven nigh-unimpeachable albums over ten years, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss cemented themselves as icons of both feminism and rock and roll. And then, without warning or elaboration, they called it quits. Sleater-Kinney dissolved following the tour for 2005’s The Woods while arguably at the height of their powers, which made the unexplained hiatus all the more baffling. Since the split, each member pursued their own artistic ambitions—Weiss released a solo record and focused on motherhood, Tucker and Brownstein headed up the supergroup Wild Flag, and Brownstein created the critically acclaimed Portlandia with her comedy partner Fred Armisen. For all intents and purposes, Sleater-Kinney was shuttered, a part of their past.
That is, until October, when the band announced a box set reissue of their LP’s and—oh yeah—a brand new Sleater-Kinney album that had been recorded in secret. Never mind that nearly a full decade had passed since the last album; like a punk rock Batman, the scene needed them and so they suited up. In a year where a vocal minority with a mean streak tried to use social media to bully and lock women out of a significant part of mainstream pop culture (even more than usual, depressingly), there’s surely a place for a loud, insistent feminist band with a political axe to grind. Sleater-Kinney seemed to agree, and thus, No Cities to Love came into being.
Frankly though, to call No Cities to Love a reunion album is to do the women of Sleater-Kinney a great disservice. There is a sort of mixed-bag stigma attached to bands that come back years after calling it quits—think The Who or the Pixies (woof)—but SK is adamant that they got back together because they truly felt there was more to say. “The three of us can get in a room and start making songs that sound like Sleater-Kinney pretty fast,” Brownstein explained in a recent Pitchfork interview, “but that’s not necessarily good enough. We had to find a new approach to the band.” The result is an album that, in that way that the trio has perfected over their incredible twenty year run, moves forward without ever sounding like a full-on departure for the band, certainly not in the slightly divisive way The Woods did. That record eschewed the band’s penchant for quick, crispy tracks in favor of longer cuts that fizzled and clipped and rattled sub-woofers, calling to mind the fuzzed out classic rock epics of the seventies. Instead, No Cities is in the same vein as earlier albums like All Hands on the Bad One or One Beat, due in part to the return of longtime producer John Goodmanson. As a result, No Cities to Love is a perfect microcosm of the songwriting tics that typify the band, and probably the most accessible entry point for a SK neophyte.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Sleater-Kinney is back, baby. Everything there is to love about the band has been revamped, fine tuned, and unleashed like never before. Corin Tucker’s vocals are still aggressive, howling and in your face. Carrie Brownstein’s guitar work is rubbery, angular, and harsh; an excellent reminder that, for my money, she is one of the most interesting and forward-thinking guitarists working today, alongside her longtime pal Annie Clark (St. Vincent). As always, Janet Weiss’s steady, bombastic drumming is the pounding pulse of the band, propelling each track forward with reckless abandon. “We sound possessed on these songs,” said Brownstein in the Sub Pop press release announcing the album, “willing it all—the entire weight of the band and what it means to us—back into existence.” That certainly shines through in the music, as tracks morph from cool, openly off-kilter riffs to a swarming, blood-buzzing frenzy before simmering back down. Whether it’s the punky swagger of “No Anthems”, the driving heartbeat of “Surface Envy”, or the gritty chord crunches of “Bury Our Friends”, that holds true; No Cities to Love is buoyed by three musicians who are throwing themselves headlong into rocking the fuck out.
A decade of time off hasn’t seen the band mellow with age, but their perspective has definitely shifted somewhat. In some meta sense, Sleater-Kinney songs have always been about what it’s like to be a member of Sleater-Kinney—being a woman in a male-dominated space, being queer in a hetero-dominated space, being brash and self-confident in the face of a society that says “don’t do that”. On its face, No Cities maintains that focus, but pulls back a bit to see the bigger picture. A lot of the content focuses on dismantling the institutions we’ve chosen as a society to put stock in. “Price Tag” is pretty overtly about trying to survive in the middle class, while “Bury Our Friends” attacks our tendency to value stardom over kinship. “Gimme Love” finds Tucker looking for, well, love, while in “Hey Darling,” she hides from it. Key thematic moments come in the bouncy chorus to “A New Wave” (“No one here is taking notice / No outline will ever hold us / It’s not a new wave / It’s just you and me”) and in the title track, as Brownstein and Tucker shout in emphatic euphoria “It’s not the weather, it’s the nothing we love! / It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love!” It’s both a mission statement and a justification for a new album; in the world of Sleater-Kinney, you should be doing the things you love with the people you love, and telling the haters to get stuffed.
As a straight man, there is a certain sense in which Sleater-Kinney’s music isn’t really intended “for me”; I’ll never know what it’s like to be told I can’t or shouldn’t do what I love because of my gender or sexual preference. As a musician, however, it’s easy to see why Weiss, Brownstein, and Tucker matter so much. Being in a band, I’ve met so many women my age who cite SK as a major influence on them becoming singers, songwriters, guitarists, drummers, and so on. When people talk about representation and why it matters so much, this is an excellent example of it. No Cities to Love is an exceptional addendum to the legacy of Sleater-Kinney, and whether it’s the last offering from the band or not, I’m so excited to hear the next generation of musicians it inspires.
No Cities to Love is available now digitally, at your local record store and on the Sleater-Kinney website.