Album Review: Sleater-Kinney—“No Cities To Love”

By James Li

In a column for NPR, Carrie Brownstein lamented that indie rock went the “way of the beard.” There were plenty of bearded men, such as Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, making sensitive music, but where was the fire? Why were we so scared to shave and risk a few cuts? In a way, we all knew; when Brownstein wrote that op-ed, her band, Sleater-Kinney, was on an “indefinite hiatus.” Her bandmates, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, went off on their own musical ventures, and Carrie Brownstein tried her hand at an acting and writing career and eventually became half of the creative force behind the hit sketch comedy Portlandia.

If Sleater-Kinney were anything, they were incendiary. They weren’t big on sloganeering, but they were never afraid to be political. They took on issues like rape culture, unrealistic beauty standards, and sexism in the music industry during a time when prominent independent female musicians like Björk and PJ Harvey rejected feminism as a label. (And now pop stars like Beyoncé, Lorde, and Taylor Swift embrace feminism — how the times have changed.) There is no doubt that many punk and indie musicians – female or not – were inspired by Sleater-Kinney, if not by their sound, then by their ethos. They were more than just feminists – they constantly resisted the urge to sign to a major label, they wrote one of the most enduring musical responses to 9/11, and more intimate songs about breakups, motherhood, and suicide.

Album art for No Cities to Love

Album art for No Cities to Love

On No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney’s first album in a decade, the band is back with the same sense of purpose. Carrie Brownstein is best known as a comedian, but when she’s with Sleater-Kinney, the three mean business. Prior to their hiatus, Sleater-Kinney’s final album was The Woods, an abrasive, sprawling album inspired by classic rock icons like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. For No Cities to Love, the band worked with producer John Goodmanson, who produced their older albums, like Dig Me Out and All Hands on the Bad One. The result is an album that sounds closer to their older material – leaner, more succinct, and more punk, barely clocking over thirty minutes.

Sleater-Kinney stripped down their sound again for No Cities to Love, letting each member’s talent shine through. Brownstein and Tucker’s razor-sharp guitar leads tangle with each other like barbed wire, sounding not too far off from St. Vincent’s guitar playing. But it is Janet Weiss’ drumming that ties this album together, especially on the surprisingly danceable “Fangless.” In fact, No Cities to Love might be the band’s most accessible album yet. “Fangless” adds a dose of Farfisa organ, and the title track is carried by an infectious chorus. “No Cities to Love” might be one of the first songs where Tucker and Brownstein harmonize, whereas they only traded lines before.

Even though one of the tracks on No Cities to Love is called “No Anthems,” every song on this album sounds like one. Unlike their previous albums, there are no slow songs on this record — each track goes for the throat. The opener, “Price Tag,” is a song that takes on consumerism in a post-recession economy. Sleater-Kinney have written better political songs, but it is Tucker’s conviction in the coda that sells the song: “I was blind by the money / I was numb from the greed.”

The best lyrical moments on the album, though, are more like rallying cries. On the chorus of “Surface Envy,” they declare their return: “We win, we lose / Only together, ‘til we break the rules.” On other tracks, the band is more reflective about their return. As Tucker observes on “Hey Darling”: “It seems to me that the only thing that comes from fame on mediocrity.” And on the album closer, “Fade,” it seems like this song might be their last again: “If we are truly dancing our swansong, darling / Shake it like never before.” No Cities to Love is so arresting that you’ll want to shake along. (Sub Pop)

Listen: “Bury Our Friends”

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