Friday, January 30, 2015

album review: 'no cities to love' by sleater-kinney

Let's talk a little bit about comebacks.

Now if you're familiar with sites like Buzzfeed at all - and if you're online, you've probably been linked to one of their advertisements disguised as a list masquerading as legitimate content at some point - you're probably aware that there's a certain market for nostalgic material. To be fair this is nothing new - artists have always had a fondness for looking back and improving or innovating upon the material of those that came before, or at the very least subverting or satirizing it - but the rise of the Internet and nerd culture means that it's much easier to wring something out of that market. And given we're currently riding something of a 90s-nostalgia wave in indie music - most of which was also influenced by the 70s which in turn was influenced by the 50s and all of it is partially driven by whatever's in the underground but that's besides the point - we've seen a slew of artists that were prominent in the 90s make something of a comeback in the past couple of years across a number of genres. 

But even as it can be an easy paycheck for the artist, I'm always a little wary about comebacks driven off of nostalgia, especially in this vein. For one, it's rare that an artist will pick up where they left off in terms of their sound or aim to experiment further - after all, that'll push that treasured fanbase away unless you can guarantee success. So often times you get artists that stick pretty close to their comfort zone with their comebacks - which is fine, you can give the fans what they want - but it's rarely all that challenging or interesting or potent.

But even with that qualification, I have to admit to having high hopes here. I've talked a little about Sleater-Kinney when I reviewed the debut album from Ex Hex called Rips late last year, but that was more of a Mary Timony project. Sleater-Kinney is more of the brain-child of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, who along with drummer Janet Weiss managed to craft several great punk and art rock records across the 90s and early 2000s before going on hiatus. And while I won't subscribe to the hyperbole of a site like Vox saying that 'Sleater-Kinney is the last great rock band' or some clickbait headline like that, I will say that with records like All Hands On The Bad One, Dig Me Out, One Beat, and The Woods that they've made some stellar, insightful, incredibly well-written records that I really enjoy.

Yet even with that, at the back of my mind, I was uneasy about this. It wasn't just that Sleater-Kinney had a passionate fanbase that would buy that comeback album in a heartbeat, but Carrie Brownstein could easily use her cult comedy TV show Portlandia for free marketing - in other words, it was something of a guaranteed investment, and given that I wasn't expecting off-beat experimentation to follow from The Woods, they could easily make this just pure fanservice. But even with that, I'm still a fan of Sleater-Kinney, so I made sure to give No Cities To Love plenty of listens - how is it?

Well, it's very much like I was expecting - in that it's not exactly challenging or incredibly innovative, but Sleater-Kinney does do enough to distinguish their comeback album and lyrically and instrumentally from their past discography to definitely make it a worthwhile listen. So yeah, No Cities To Love is a damn good record and will likely please all of their fans - and yet at the end of the day, I feel similar to when I reviewed Aphex Twin's Syro - in that for as good as it is, it's the sort of comeback that doesn't exactly take chances, which means it's got a slice of great songs, but nothing that ever really blew my mind or I would brand as exceptional.

So let's start with what you'd expect from Sleater-Kinney, because say what you will about them, they are at least consistent. Janet Weiss' drumming is methodical but explosive, Corin Tucker's downtuned guitar gives the songs plenty of foundation operating in a 'bass' role while forming solid grooves, and there's still a focus on melody I've always loved. The big changes come in the details - while there is still blocky distortion on the guitars, the tone is brighter and less intensely abrasive - it's easily their most accessible album in years, at least instrumentally, with cleaner production and grooves that are more jittery than the roiling crush of The Woods. This brings in mixed results, because while you might get melodically solid riffs like the starkly memorable 'Price Tag', the restraint and great guitar interplay of the title track, the hook-driven scratch of 'A New Wave', the seething, almost post-hardcore menace of 'No Anthems', or the oily chugging groove of 'Bury Our Friends', but you also get songs like the frantic skitter of 'Fangless', the melodically-overwritten and messy 'Surface Envy', or the staccato sputter of 'Gimme Love'. It becomes more of an issue in the guitar solos - the rougher, stiffer tone Sleater-Kinney chose works great for the heavier, chunkier grooves, and yet most of their actual technique focuses more on scale progressions or flutters, and thus whenever a fast-picked solo comes, it just comes across as messy. And what grooves we do get aren't often given the same chance to simmer or really show off the composition - a prime example of this is the album closer 'Fade', which is really the only track that feels it could have come off of The Woods with the minor keys, thicker reverb, and slower tempo - and yet midway through the song it shifts into this stuttering riff that almost feels post-punk and yet the vocal filter and the runny tone they chose for the solo was incredibly unflattering and didn't fit at all.

So what about the vocals? Well, like with the instrumentation, they tend towards being more accessible than the snarled monster that was The Woods. I'll admit to liking Corin Tucker's voice a little more than Brownstein, especially on this album with the lighter tone, but they've always had great interplay and while we don't get as many harmonies as I'd always prefer, they still bring a lot of plucky, ragged energy that was definitely appreciated. And with the vocals being made more prominent, it also gives the listener plenty of opportunity to delve deep into the lyrics, which have always been a major selling point for Sleater-Kinney. And I've always liked their songwriting - not just for their uncanny knack for empathy and displaying rough-edged vulnerability, but also for crafting stories that might have lurid imagery, but also can seem intensely relatable, mostly because they're not shy about including themselves in their messages. 

So what topics are Sleater-Kinney tackling this time?  Well, as expected, there are your songs focused on the band's reunion and their place in music today, but it's the framing of this situation where it gets interesting. For one, the band is not content to rest on their laurels, instead almost seeming to treat their past as an anchor like on 'Surface Envy' and disdain the idols they once revered for becoming set in their ways on 'Fangless'. And yet with songs like the title track and 'Price Tag' and especially 'Bury Your Friends', they show that despite how suffocating and claustrophobic a normal routine can be, it's also brings a certain security that can be seductive. And it's true - people default towards established systems because they provide the illusion of comfort, and yet under closer examination they can crumble. The title track is a prime example, delving into why people become attached to certain cities, with the excuses becoming thinner and thinner and a damning indictment against settling down - which is a little ironic, considering Carrie Brownstein's objections to touring, but whatever. Go deeper and you can see that Sleater-Kinney's true enemy isn't so much the 'system' as it is stasis and inertia, and yet acknowledging all the way how hard it can be to break out of it, especially when change can invite mistrust or anger. But there's power in change, and there's a real populist edge when they say that while people can build the systems that imprison them, they can also break them. Sure, you won't have the same security or be forced towards obscurity or the lowest of methods, but it's definitely preferable to getting locked into a system and routine that will strip away your individuality and soul.

But here's the funny thing - Sleater-Kinney pushed a message screaming for change, subverting and breaking the system at every turn, disparaging the hidebound idols and burning those that would lock you down and standing firm against the suggestive illusion of structure - and they did it with their most accessible, 'normal'-feeling record to date. And believe it or not, I'd argue that was intentional - after all, what better way to enhance your populism in your sound to smuggle a subversive message into the lyrics - and with their knack for details that some might consider mundane, they could strike even more of a chord. In a way, they flipped my original criticism of not being blown away by innovation on this record on its head - because that wasn't the point. 

So at the end of the day, how do I feel about No Cities To Love? Well, there are moments that really do strike a chord with me. I'll admit that I was hoping deep down Sleater-Kinney would continue on the direction of The Woods and go even darker, but there's a different sort of innovation on this album in subverting the normal, and while it doesn't quite hit me as hard as their more visceral work - I don't see it unseating any of their classic records - it's still a respectable and thought-provoking record I can see winning the band a lot of new fans. And you know, I think I'll take back what I said earlier - this record is challenging - but more for fans with expectations of how they expected Sleater-Kinney would sound than with new arrivals, which might be extremely meta in context of the album but makes sense in a twisted way. So for me, I'm thinking a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan of feminist-themed punk rock or even if you're just looking for some music guaranteed to make you think. If you're a fan, this record might demand a bit to really get into, but trust me, it's worth it. 

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