When Sleater-Kinney announced No Cities to Love, their first album after a 10-year hiatus, the music world was abuzz with a mix of anticipation (they’re back together!) and apprehension (will they still be good?). I had a different question on my mind: who is this band? Unlike other music fans, I hadn’t heard any of the band’s previous seven records.
But after hearing their latest album, I plunged into their back catalog, listening to all of their records. While they’ve made more poignant (One Beat) and ambitious (The Woods), No Cities is their most straight-to-finish enjoyable album. There’s plenty of familiarity here: tight three minute punk songs that balance pop, rock, and feminism without breaking a sweat. But the band feels tighter-knit than ever before, working together with more power than ever. The result may be their most accessible album, and a fine starting-point for newbies, but also a satisfying work for diehards.
But…who are Sleater-Kinney? Named after a Lacey, Washington interstate, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein formed the band in 1994, as part of the riot-girrl female-punk wave. Listening to their self-titled first album, released in 1996, you’ll notice many of their defining qualities (angry yet thoughtful lyrics sung over roaring punk) are apparent but far from fully formed. Their third record, the now-classic Dig Me Out (1997), was their first great one, a blast of punk-pop with a newfound clarity. After two weaker efforts, they really shook things up with One Beat (2002) and The Woods (2005). Neither sounded quite like anything they’d tried before; the former was a catchy pop-rock response to 9/11, the latter a speaker-exploding re-working of 70’s hard rock.
No Cities doesn’t seek out as much new sonic territory as The Woods did. But the band, freshly regrouped, has taken a little something from all their other albums (howling, heavy fury; concise pop melodies; and thoughtful lyrics), shaken it all together, and produced a precisely distilled record that feels completely fresh.
Sleater-Kinney doesn’t waste anytime in hooking listeners, either. They grab you with an opening guitar line and refuse to let go for 32 minutes. As always, the band strikes a balance between the clear and the chaotic, the refined and the raw. In the space of a neatly structured 3-minute rock song, they express a world of struggle, yearning, and excitement. There’s also plenty of infectious hooks, Carrie Brownstein’s sophisticated guitar work, never-better drumming from Janet Weiss, and Corin Tucker’s singing. Amidst it all, Tucker’s voice truly stands out, an instrument unto itself. She screams, she screechs, yet she’s always saying something. The band has always been interested in more than innocent love songs, and the topics tackled here include the struggling economy, ungrateful men, and the people that makes the cities worth loving. With No Cities To Love, the band will likely find a few new fans, and I’m happy to say I’m one of them.