I Wish This New Sleater-Kinney Song Wasn’t Crappy

The act of reuniting your band is inherently sort of pathetic. Even if it’s done for reasons other than shameless cash-grabbing, it’s often an attempt by the members to recapture their glory years, like a popular kid returning to high school years later. Maybe the saddest part of some reunions is that one often gets the sense that the artists involved could be doing something new and cool, but instead they’re stuck acting as old versions of themselves, playing the same songs because they felt a need to give in to fans who always want more.

I know all of this, but when Sleater-Kinney reunited, I convinced myself this would be different. I ignored some of the obvious warning signs, like Carrie Brownstein’s burgeoning career of making hipster jokes on Portlandia and appearing in American Express commercials. When their reunion album dropped, I wanted it to be great more than anything, but after a couple listens I knew it wasn’t. I figured it was their first album back and maybe they just needed to get back in the swing of things.

Now they have a new album coming out produced by Annie Clark, which would have been my dream about ten years ago, but now feels like a worst case scenario for all people involved. The latest song, “The Future is Here,” confirmed all of my worst suspicions about this project: it’s a trainwreck that I’ll use as exhibit A when I argue for making band reunions illegal in front of the Supreme Court.

About the only positive thing I can say about this track is that the band tried something different rather than rehashing their old music, and I think it came from a place of wanting to push themselves artistically. But what they’ve done is take everything that made Sleater-Kinney cool and unique and replaced it with boring, generic sounds. This isn’t Bob Dylan going electric; this is like if Kevin Shields followed up Loveless with an album of acoustic Imagine Dragons covers.

The twin guitars and harmonies of Corin Tucker and Brownstein are absent here, replaced by some stale synths that make the song sound like a mid-2000s Yeah Yeah Yeahs album track. The other vital element of Sleater-Kinney’s music has always been Janet Weiss’ drumming — the urgency and intensity of the band’s sound came through in her aggressive style, which conveyed a sense of passion, like the song you were listening to really mattered. On this song, she’s marginalized to just playing a simple, lifeless drum beat, which renders the entire song limp and purposeless. The lyrics don’t exactly help either — it’s not like S-K were ever masters of subtlety, but the “actually, iPhones are bad” theme doesn’t inspire a lot of deep thought, which might be why half the song is spent on “na na na”s.

I’m trying to mentally picture what happened in this recording session. Clearly the band wanted to push themselves in new directions and Annie Clark was happy to oblige. I was critical of Clark’s last album, which I thought pursued a generic, soulless pop vision that prioritized superficial gimmickry over real artistry. Now it appears S-K has been caught in her vortex of making corny, instantly dated pop. The album cover has the image of Brownstein with her backwards butt exposed, which is an image that feels inspired by Clark’s recent propensity towards contrived, phony “weirdness.” My best guess is the band and Clark were shooting for some poppy-but-deep artsy thing, but they really did not succeed on any level. It’s enough to make me lose faith in everyone involved, all of whom were at one point among my favorite artists in the world.

It had been awhile since I’d really listened to Sleater-Kinney, so I decided to throw on The Woods on my drive to work to see if maybe I had just outgrown the band. That would have been sad in its own way, but preferable to the reality this song presents. It turns out The Woods still kicks ass. Just listen to “The Fox” and compare it to this song. That album was the ultimate farewell, a band going out in a blaze of glory by unleashing every emotion they had left and leaving on top of their game. Instead, it’s become another cautionary example for future bands and their fans: sometimes its better to quit when you’re ahead.

#11: Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

Given the impossible task of topping the band’s previous work, No Cities to Love is a satisfying return to form for Sleater-Kinney that dodges the pitfalls of many reunion albums. The trio of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss quickly settle into their old chemistry and unsurprisingly deliver one of the better rock albums of the year, with the band’s typical political commentary and Tucker’s roaring vocals being an especially welcome return.

Rather than comparing this album to The Woods, which really felt like a band going out in a blaze of glory, I like to think of No Cities to Love as starting something new for the band. And on this album, I get the sense that they’re still working out some of the kinks and getting back into the Sleater-Kinney “zone” that resulted in such consistently compelling music years ago. If all this is true, No Cities to Love is a good start, and I look forward to seeing what the band can do next.

You can read my initial post about the album here.

Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

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.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #2 – Sleater-Kinney – “The Woods”

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On One Beat, Sleater-Kinney showed signs of expanding their sound from their previous basic punk framework to something that could almost fill an arena. But nothing (and I mean nothing) could have prepared anyone for what would come on The Woods. After six albums and over ten years as a band, Sleater-Kinney completely reinvented themselves with a loud, gigantic rock album that sounds like the band’s take on Led Zeppelin and The Stooges. It was a massive risk, but one that paid off tremendously: The Woods is, for my money, the best rock album of the last 15 years or so.  In fact, it’s so ambitious, aggressive, and just plain awesome that it makes other attempts at rock albums from this time period look inconsequential and stupid.

The first thing most people note about The Woods is that it is very loud. Usually it comes to their attention after they start playing the raucous opener “The Fox” and nearly have their ear drums destroyed before they check to see if their speakers are broken.  The band hired Dave Fridmann, who had previously produced albums for The Flaming Lips and others, and he opted for the controversial production on The Woods that pushes every sound into the red. On the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein said that Fridmann wanted the listener to think something was wrong with their speakers at least once on every song, and he pretty much pulls that off by producing what might be the loudest album in the history of music this side of Raw Power.

The loudness isn’t just a gimmick though, as it helps bring Brownstein’s classic rock riffing and Janet Weiss’ drumming to unforeseen heights. Singer Corin Tucker also pushes her always abrasive voice further than it’s ever gone before, launching it to Robert Plant levels but still sounding like no one else in music. The distorted sound on The Woods functions as both an homage to and a subversion of 1970s cock rock.

Beyond the noise and distortion, what’s really striking about The Woods is how the band uses completely different song structures than they did in the past. Their previous albums had few songs more than 3 minutes long, but The Woods revels in its glorious excess, with guitar solos and breakdowns sending songs down unpredictable paths. “What’s Mine is Yours” starts out normally enough but gives way to a psychedelic section where Tucker chants against Brownstein’s squealing guitar and the thudding drums. But no song represents the new Sleater-Kinney more than “Let’s Call it Love”, an 11 minute (!) song about sex that is unabashedly dirty and features a nearly six minute guitar solo that careens all over the place. It transitions into another experiment, the improvised jam “Night Light” that closes the album (and the band’s career).

The album has a more accessible middle section that is expertly paced, beginning with the suicide fable “Jumpers” that combines poignant lyrics with the rest of the album’s guitar hero swagger. Things quiet down with the Brownstein-sung “Modern Girl” with its sly, satirical lyrics. On “Entertain” the band mocks the backwards-looking indie rock scene with some of their most cutting lyrics: “you can drown in mediocrity, it feels sublime” Brownstein sings on the bridge. It’s a cocky song, but with this album the band had earned the right to look down on others.

The new sound seems like it freed Sleater-Kinney from the conventions they were stuck in before, and it leads to maybe the most energized, vital music of their career.  Seven years later, The Woods still sounds more fresh and relevant than any rock album of today. I think it’s close to being unparalleled in its combination of craziness, ambition, and just pure rockage — The Woods is a colossal, badass hurricane of an album that leaves a sea of lame indie-rock dopes trembling in its wake.

It also ended up being the ultimate swan song for the band, as they went on indefinite hiatus after touring for the album. In retrospect it makes sense, given the go for broke mentality that The Woods exudes, and perhaps the band feeling burned out from music (and possibly each other) is what led to this album reaching such insane heights. The Woods caps off what I think is one of the greatest runs by a band in rock music history, and it does so with an incredibly loud bang.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #4 – Sleater-Kinney – “One Beat”

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No event shaped American life in the last decade like 9/11. I still vividly remember hearing about it when I was a sixth grader, and I also remember that awkward period after 9/11 where nobody knew exactly what was going to happen in America. For artists, 9/11 created a separate conundrum: what could be said about such an unthinkable tragedy? Most understandably opted to avoid the whole mess rather than risk alienating fans or being seen as making light of the event.

Not Sleater-Kinney. Following their 2000 album All Hands on the Bad One, banshee-voiced singer Corin Tucker gave birth to her first child. After a pair of more introspective albums, that event and 9/11 shape the music on One Beat, which effortlessly combines the political and the personal while also rocking to the stratosphere with a thrilling vitality.

Politics had always been part of Sleater-Kinney’s MO, but on One Beat they really come to the forefront. That resulted in some expected criticism of the band, but it’s also what makes One Beat feel so essential. Recorded in March and released in August 2002, the band takes prophetic shots at the Bush administration before it became a cliche for bands to do so. The band also plays as a unit more than they ever had before, with Carrie Brownstein providing monster riffs and more vocals while Janet Weiss continues to wail on her drums. Tucker’s voice, always the breaking point when it comes to people trying to get into S-K, is as unhinged and emotional as ever.

“Far Away” is one of the defining songs on One Beat, combining a thunderous guitar riff with Tucker’s first-hand account of seeing 9/11 on TV while she’s nursing her baby. That’s followed by the first overtly political statement of the album: “don’t breathe the air today/don’t speak of why you’re afraid,” presenting Sleater-Kinney as the band that would speak up in the awkward silence that was post 9/11 life. Later, they take their first pointed shot at Bush: “the president hides while working men rush in and give their lives.”

“Step Aside” takes a different approach, putting the polemics into a danceable song with call and response vocals. “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?” Tucker asks on the song, and it seems to capture Sleater-Kinney’s worldview of music being a tool for change and fun. “Combat Rock” features most of the album’s most cutting lines (and its most memorable guitar riff), with Brownstein hiccuping through the verses and the band once again taking aim at the uncomfortable silence that followed 9/11 and preceded the Iraq war: “Where is the questioning? Where is our protest song? Since when is skepticism un-American?” Album closer “Sympathy” provides almost too much emotional catharsis, with Tucker praying for the life of her son (who was born premature).

One Beat stands up as Sleater-Kinney’s most diverse album, with many different sounds and moods. For every serious Bush-bashing song on the album there’s also one that’s a lot of fun, be it the tongue-in-cheek tale of the good girl gone bad in “Prisstina” or the poppy “Oh!” with its wah-wah chorus. But it’s the political moments that get the most attention, and for good reason: while other bands would follow in their path and perhaps dull One Beat‘s impact, it’s an album that took a lot of courage to make. In a time where almost everyone else was being quiet, Sleater-Kinney spoke up, and that’s what makes One Beat a rock album of incredible power and purpose.

Nearly ten years removed from One Beat, its shots at republicans, anti-intellectualism, and consumerism still feel depressingly relevant. What also feels relevant about the album is that it’s a reminder of what rock music can be: One Beat feels like an album that had to be made and heard. I debate endlessly about what my favorite Sleater-Kinney album is, but One Beat is probably the one that I respect the most, because it’s so fearless and strong in its convictions.

Favorite 90s Albums: #3 – Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out”

At this point, I’m sure people are aware of my deep, abiding love of Sleater-Kinney.  They’re my musical religion, the band that, to me, represents everything that music should be about. All of the elements that make them a definitive rock band to me are present on their 1997 album Dig Me Out, which many fans would argue is their high point as a group.

Admittedly, I’m a big dork about rock music.  For me, it isn’t for blasting in the radio or playing at a party.  Rather, I like to take the term literally:  It should “rock” you, make you think, and wake you up from the constant doldrums of life and humanity.  Alleged “rock” bands that don’t do these things are frequently the target of my ire and it’s a constant disagreement I have with other people.

Dig Me Out is one of my all-time favorite rock albums because it has such a sense of purpose.  It isn’t just trying to sound cool or to be a fun soundtrack to a dance party (although some of the songs are quite danceable).  It wants to jolt the listener, to move them and inspire them.  And for a certain group of people, the types that are disenfranchised with the status quo in both the real world and music world, it does just that, which might explain why the band has such a rabid (but relatively small) following.

For Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney brought in a new drummer, Janet Weiss, to go along with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s two-pronged guitar and vocals assault.  Weiss immediately gave the band a new-found sense of confidence and swagger, and as a result Dig Me Out sounds like their first album in which they’re aspiring to be a great all-around rock band rather than just a punk outfit.  Her presence was immediately felt in the opening title track, which I consider one of the band’s signature songs.

After the release of their 2000 album “All Hands on the Bad One”, music critic Robert Christgau said of the band: “locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967.”  It’s a bold statement, but one I find completely true:  Not only can I not imagine Sleater-Kinney making a bad album, it’s hard for me to picture them making a bad song.  Corin Tucker’s attention-demanding vocals, Brownstein’s complex riffwork and vocal chemistry with Tucker along with Weiss’s drumming made Sleater-Kinney into a machine.  It’s apparent on Dig Me Out, which comes storming out of the gate with three of the band’s best songs and never lets up from there, providing an exhilarating 36 minutes of rock and roll.

The oddball song on the album is “One More Hour,” a more personal song that (apparently) details the break-up between Tucker and Brownstein that happened in the early days of the band.  Sleater-Kinney’s style makes the song work perfectly, as the ping-ponging guitars and vocals also play into the idea of the two having had a relationship.  I think it’s one of the all-time great indie break-up songs and it foreshadows the shift Sleater-Kinney would make on their next album (“The Hot Rock”) into more personal territory instead of rousing, occasionally feminist anthems.

I’ve always thought that all-female bands occupied a strange place in music, which might be why I’m so fascinated by them.  The female listeners they’re often trying to inspire often just listen to sensitive guys strumming on guitar, while a lot of male listeners look up to male rock idols in order to seem “manly.”  The band seemed to channel a lot of those concepts into meta songs about being in a band, like the infectious “Words and Guitar.”

The band’s greatness has eventually caused me to dub something called “The Sleater-Kinney Effect”, based on how lame the band is able to make other artists (especially their male counterparts) sound after listening to them.  The effect becomes even more pronounced through time, as 90’s guitar rock went by the wayside and Sleater-Kinney towered over unoriginal post-punk bands and wimpy indie pop in the first half of the 2000s.  In 1997 things probably felt the same way, as Dig Me Out provided a jolt of legitimate female empowerment at the height of the Spice Girls “girl power” movement, and surely inspired many women (including one of my favorite current artists, Marnie Stern) to pick up a guitar.

Despite how convinced I am that they’re one of the best bands ever, I’ve come to accept that Sleater-Kinney is a love-it or hate-it proposition.  Tucker’s vocals are difficult on the ears a lot of listeners and a lot of people are put off by the band’s apparent feminist sloganeering.  At the same time, the idea of listening to Dig Me Out and not being inspired by the passion put into each song is foreign to me, even as a guy who isn’t really the target audience.  More than any other band, I feel like people that love Sleater-Kinney “get it” on a level beyond typical music listeners.

Wild Flag

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning (which I can only hope you have been, for continuity reasons), you may have noticed that there’s been a distinct lack of actual new music on it.  This is sort of intentional:  While I’ve actually liked 2011 quite a bit and have been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new stuff, I still think that something has been missing from current music.  I’ve grown a bit jaded about how most of the hyped bands of the day all seem to chart the same influences, to be following the same basic formula, and constantly living in the past.

Enter Wild Flag, a four woman supergroup consisting of singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and a solo career, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders.  Those names probably don’t mean a whole lot to many people reading this, but for me and many others its a dream collaboration, a veritable Traveling Wilburys of indie rock goddesses.  From day one, the band has had a massive amount of hype and expectations from rabid Sleater-Kinney fans, the kind like me who think rock music has been circling the drain since the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2006 following their colossal swan song, “The Woods.”

The expectations for Wild Flag are expected, but also unfair.  In reality, there’s no way the band could capture the unique chemistry and passion that defined Sleater-Kinney.  However, their debut album, which is streaming on NPR, is nonetheless an immensely satisfying collection of tunes that fills many of the gaps left empty by today’s indie kids.

See, Wild Flag make rock music.  Not “indie” rock or “noise” rock or whatever other lame qualifiers people seem to put in front of it now.  This is fun, energetic rock music that is never boring, and in today’s musical climate that qualifies as a revelation.  It doesn’t have the urgency of Sleater-Kinney or the dark combativeness of Helium; rather, it’s a pure, unpretentious showcase of everything that rock can offer from four women who know a lot about it.

A common knock on supergroups is that they’re more a collection of individuals than a cohesive band.  Wild Flag defies that, as they’re instantly able to craft a unique sound that separates themselves from their previous bands.  It’s a diverse collection of songs, from the almost power pop lead track and first single “Romance” to the woozy psychedelia of “Glass Tambourine”.  Brownstein and Timony mostly trade vocals and harmonies, and each brings a different energy to each song.

While the hype around Wild Flag has mostly surrounded the Sleater-Kinney semi-reunion, it’s actually Timony who may be the band’s MVP.  In the later days of Helium and the beginnings of her solo career, Timony flirted with being sort of an indie fantasy pixie girl, as she sang about magic and dragons and played quirky songs full of lush instrumentation.  She doesn’t do that on Wild Flag (although she does sneak a “dragonslayer” reference into “Electric Band”), but her more laid back, mystical qualities make a nice foil for Brownstein’s hyperactive wildness.  It’s illustrated on album closer “Black Tiles”, my favorite song so far, and the only one where they exchange lead vocals and put that duality on full display.  Both are also tremendously gifted guitar players and are able to rip a lot of memorable riffs and solos in each song.

Of course, Wild Flag is also anchored by Weiss, who continues to prove that she’s arguably the best rock drummer in music today.  I know absolutely nothing about drumming, but I can still tell that Weiss is really, really good at it, and she brings a ton of life to each song with her thunderous playing.  Rebecca Cole (who I’m mostly unfamiliar with) also gives the songs some extra bounce with her keyboards, which add an extra dimension that the group’s previous bands didn’t have.

In the end, Wild Flag meets their lofty expectations and provides an absolute treat for Sleater-Kinney fans like me that were too busy failing at life to get into them before they went on hiatus.  But beyond that, it’s possibly the most refreshing album of the year so far — a much needed shot of energy and life into the increasingly dull music landscape.