Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sleater-Kinney -- No Cities to Love

Rewind to October 2004. I'm a freshman in high school and I go the annual "Do you want to be in a band? Here are other people who want to be in a band meeting." This one guy -- an upperclassman who I had seen wearing women's jeans and a bow in his hair on my first day of school -- approached me to play in his band. I told him I was pretty bad at guitar. He said that was fine. They played riot grrl.


"You know. Riot grrl. Feminist punk rock. You won't need to know how to play guitar."


I'm pretty sure Gershon picked me out of the crowd because he thought I was gay and he thought I thought he was gay. At the time he was wrong on both counts.

We covered Sleater-Kinney's "Words and Guitar." I fell in love at first listen. I was definitely not skilled enough to play any of Sleater-Kinney's songs, so I took over Carrie's vocal parts. It wasn't just empowering to listen to women playing aggressive rock'n'roll -- it was, after all, 2004, so even though it was a thin playing field for women in rock, it at least existed -- but, more importantly, the fact that these women weren't singing a love song or an endictment of the Patriarchy (at least not in that moment) -- it was about how rock'n'roll made them feel, the same feeling it gave (gives) me. It was pretty profound. It's impossible to deny Sleater-Kinney's role in my personal bildungsroman.

I'm pretty sure every female-identified music journalist who writes about this album will start their review in a similar vein. Sleater-Kinney isn't just a lady rock band, or even an excellent rock band. They truly are a cultural force. It's so good to have them back. The "hiatus" or whatever you want to call it was probably healthy for the band. Whatever choice they make after they finish this tour will probably also be the right decision for them.

No Cities to Love is a complete 180 from their last album, The Woods. Where The Woods was earthy and organic, full of exuberant, lengthy guitar solos, No Cities pulls back. The music is tightly wound, anxious, and angular to the point of approaching math rock. That's to be expected, I guess -- the trio can't not be influenced by the electronica trends that have filtered into indie music in the last ten years. It might be fair to say that The Woods was the last great indie rock album of the decade. It was released just as Williamsburg reached its apex, when more kids were reaching for synthesizers and drum machines than guitars. "Bury Our Friends" seems to be a direct response to The Woods' "Entertain" -- the tastemakers still think it's 1984 without any of the bite, and now we're stuck "exhuming our idols" while our friends move on. It's the natural conclusion of a creative field that's more reliant on reviving the past instead of pushing for originality.

No Cities is anxious an anxious meditation about society and the self. There's a certain warmth and playfulness to Sleater-Kinney's previous work that's lacking here -- except for "Hello Darling," a playful 60s pop-like number that offers at least some explanation for the band's hiatus:

It seems to me the only thing
That comes from fame is mediocrity
How could you steal the things I love
Then keep it from me, just out of touch?


Sometimes the heat of the crowd
Feels a little too close
Sometimes the shout of the room
Makes me feel so alone

This represents, to me, another change in Sleater-Kinney's direction. While the band has always expressed its disapproval of modern society, or performed songs about depression and self-doubt, those emotions were never directed at the self. (I could be wrong...I only have Dig Me Out, The Woods, and Call the Doctor.) Sleater-Kinney's boldness is what makes me love them -- while I listen to plenty of people who talk about how shitty they think they are, it's disconcerting coming from this group of people, though certainly no less powerful or affirming.

This is already one of the best albums of the year, no doubt about it. Would I give it to a first-time listener of Sleater-Kinney? I'm not sure -- there are a lot of things I loved about the band that aren't here. But it's also okay that they're not here. There's plenty of admirable qualities in this album that would make any appreciator of music drawn to the band.

Sleater-Kinney -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Sub Pop Records

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