*Reviewer’s Note: When I volunteered to review this album, the editor of Overblown’s review section (Martin Wilson) wrote me an email to confirm the assignment and then followed with “Certainly no point in me reviewing it. I’d give it 100% and cover the review in love hearts.”- He’d just written a little Sleater-Kinney retrospective piece, and I have to admit, his enthusiasm might have primed me to fall in love at first listen, a balanced review, the following may not be.
Sleater-Kinney’s “reunion” album, No Cities to Love, isn’t evidence of a comeback. It isn’t a reworking of Sleater Kinney’s classic riot grrrl sound to appease a lonely fanbase or to jump-start their career trajectory. Absolutely nothing about the album hints at their recent hiatus as a group from the musical world. For some reason, this album seems so completely honed that Sleater-Kinney doesn’t even really need the name or reputation of Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss) to interest fans or intrigue a new audience, the album alone is that good. So, it just doesn’t seem relevant to speculate on the background of No Cities to Love when it can neither add or detract from the quality of storytelling and sound that is this album (though I do kind of wonder if there some mystical numerology behind this being Sleater-Kinney’s 8th album released after an 8 year artistic break? Hmmm…).
One of the first impressions made by No Cities to Love is how careful Sleater-Kinney seems in this album . Without any sense of sloppiness or hurry, there is purpose to be found here: Sleater-Kinney exudes a practiced and quiet confidence, a balance which is difficult to find in most music of the punk or riot grrrl persuasion. From the first song at the first listen, it seems like they have earned this music, allowed it to grow, and not forced anything to be heard that isn’t ready. There is such a sense of completion to each song, such a thorough independence of sound that is both earnestly reminiscent of previous influences and artistic movements while also resistant to anything detectably “trendy”.
The lyric quality alone, vocalized by Tucker and Brownstein’s infectious bird-of-prey screams and lovingly familiar breathy howls, makes for outstanding storytelling. A great example can be found in the title track “No Cities to Love” which exhibits a bit of wisdom and insight for life in the millennial world at the turn of its final chorus with a declaration “There are no cities There are no cities, no cities to love/ It’s not the weather, it’s the nothing we love!/ It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love!”. “Price Tag”, feels close to a systematic questioning of society, “In the market, the kids are starving/They reach for the good stuff”, with a quality of writing well-matched to the seriousness of message. It is a dynamic which doesn’t rely on cheap shock and awe tactics for its political “Fuck You” grin.
Of course the punk protein is still readily identifiable in the genetics of their sound (especially when it comes to the filthy quick mastery of Weiss’s drums). Brownstein’s guitar is well-cured, she’s carried with her exactly all the skills she needs and showcases her prowess only when necessary, and absolutely without any masturbatory “look what I can do” overtones. The transitions are fluid, nearly dream-like despite the undeniable intensity of their tonal flexing. Instrumentally, they have excelled beyond anything genre-based to create a complete work where everything fits and nothing is trying too hard. “Exhume our idols, bury our friends/ We’re wild and weary, but we won’t give in” proclaims the chorus of, “Bury Our Friends”, lyrics which are pretty close to apt metaphor for the most recent evolution of Sleater-Kinney to be found within No Cities to Love.
No Cities to Love is out January 20th via Sub Pop Records.