About 3-4 years ago, I absolutely worshiped Sleater-Kinney. I listened to all of their albums a million times, wrote about them here a bunch, and just generally would gush about them to anyone that listened. Unfortunately, I was late to the scene (as usual) and never got to experience them as an active band. This led to me developing a sad ritual where I would frequently google “Sleater-Kinney” and hope for some news, any news, that indicated they’d be reuniting. At some point, I stopped googling, stopped being hopeful for a reunion, and pretty much stopped listening to the band altogether — not because I suddenly hated them, but because it felt like there was nothing new to discover in their music. I didn’t need Sleater-Kinney anymore.
Of course, then they actually did reunite last year, and I had some mixed feelings. Most of these had to do with guitarist/singer Carrie Brownstein, who has ascended to some level of celebrity in the last few years as a star of the TV series “Portlandia.” She’s stated in interviews that Sleater-Kinney needed to be a full-time thing, and I was worried that it would be treated more like a side project, which doesn’t seem like a context the band can function in.
My other big concern was Sleater-Kinney being the subject of the modern album hype cycle. This is more of a niche thing for people overly plugged into the music press, Twitter, etc, but it’s a phenomenon I really hate, where the lead-up to a band’s album is treated like a coronation that results in a ton of mostly uncritical hyperbole and excitement. This has the unfortunate effect of making any band feel like the music equivalent of the New York Yankees — an overly popular powerhouse team you never stop hearing about, get really sick of before you even see them play, and desperately want to see lose. To me, Sleater-Kinney has always felt like an underdog band of sorts, so seeing them pushed into this Yankees role was pretty lame, and I eventually had to tune it all out as much as I could.
None of this even gets into the actual music, which is the other problem: at the end of their initial run, the band had seemingly pushed themselves as far as they possibly could with The Woods, an album I still love because of its towering ambition and ferocity. Following it up seemed virtually impossible to me, especially after a ten-year layoff, so No Cities to Love had an insurmountable task from the get-go.
A lot of these concerns pretty much stopped mattering once I actually, you know, listened to the damn album. The band hits their groove immediately on “Price Tag,” a fiery working-class anthem, and keeps it going through my favorite track “Fangless” and the roaring “Surface Envy.” The rest of the album doesn’t quite reach the heights of those first three tracks, but there is still a consistency and solidness to No Cities to Love that would be surprising after a ten-year layoff if this wasn’t Sleater-Kinney, a band with incredible chemistry that spent years routinely churning out great music.
My favorite part of No Cities to Love is definitely the re-emergence of Corin Tucker, who still has one of the most essential voices in rock music. I actually liked her albums with The Corin Tucker Band and thought they were generally under-appreciated, but she is really at home fronting this band, and her voice always gives the songs an urgency and jolt they might otherwise not have. On guitar, she also provides more of a low-end on this album than she has before, giving the usually trebly band a more full sound, and her vocal interplay with Brownstein hasn’t missed a beat since The Woods. Meanwhile, Janet Weiss is still a monster on drums, giving the songs a real drive and purpose.
There is a tendency to assume any album made after this big of a layoff needs to be a huge artistic statement, which No Cities to Love avoids — for the most part, it’s just a really good rock album. I find that makes it a bit less compelling than something like The Woods or One Beat, which were more ambitious, exciting albums, but I also don’t really see that as the purpose of No Cities to Love. This is the start of a new era for the band — a reintroduction of sorts — and it shows that they can still make thrilling, smart rock music. And after all my reservations, it convinced me that I do still need Sleater-Kinney after all.