Archive for Janet Weiss

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love [Album of the Month; January 2015]

Posted in Album, Music, Review with tags , , , , on February 4, 2015 by David Hall

No Cities To Love

Stop me if I’m wrong, but the decade-long gap marking Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus really hasn’t seemed that long. Actually with creative projects like Portlandia, Wild Flag, Corin Tucker Band and Quasi keeping their fanbase occupied, the period has fairly skipped past. With tension possibly eased by their split always feeling more like a placed bookmark than a fallen guillotine, the Oregon three-piece’s welcome return was marked with a new album to begin the year. Immediately, No Cities To Love has asserted itself proudly as an exceptional entry in the catalogue of one of America’s most vital alternative acts.

As Sleater-Kinney have so successfully refined and subtly reinvented their sound on each album, No Cities prompts a question from the very first listen; which version of the band has been captured here? The retro, rootsy denim jacket-wearing The Woods version? Or perhaps mark One Beat, loose, genre-hopping and brimming with confidence. Maybe their feral beginnings, or their taut alt rock middle period, exemplified by the couplet of The Hot Rock and All Hands On the Bad One. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s none of those; not quite, anyway. Instead we’re treated to another subtle but distinct metamorphosis.

No Cities To Love marks an uncompromisingly leaner, tauter incarnation of the band, who have produced an unmistakeably bold and listenable record. Longtime Sleater-Kinney producer John Goodmanson collaborates once more to coax a more nuanced sound from the trio than during any of their previous work together. There isn’t an ounce of fat on the album, none of its ten curtly-titled tracks lasting past the four minute mark. It’s a lean, spirited, clever listen; this is a smart, savvy, and very switched-on version of riot grrl. What’s most impressive about No Cities however is that the album sounds full of singles, potential set-opening songs and firebrand tracks bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.

‘Price Tag’ is a perfectly understandable choice as the album’s opening, with searing dual vocals that soar throatily in the chorus, Corin Tucker hitting gorgeously vibrato-infused notes that rattle with passion over Janet Weiss’ propulsive rhythm. Nevertheless, there are other tracks bristling with energy which could arguably have lead off the album far more readily. ‘Price Tag’s awkward hammered-on riff improves with each listen and its socio-political commentary centring on retail jobs feels welcome with the recent rise of zero-hour contracts, all unfamiliar territory in terms of lyrical themes. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of previous opening tracks such as ‘Start Together’, ‘The Fox’ or Dig Me Out’s incendiary opening salvo. That’s no indictment to say that ‘Price Tag’ isn’t the strongest track here, more reflecting the potency of the following nine.

Holistically it’s as if the reins have been taken off the band and they can make every song compete with the last for the title of most ecstatic and unrestrained. ‘Surface Envy’ for instance orbits thrillingly around its staircase tumble of a riff, resolving itself into a picked open-sounding chord progression and clashing cymbal hits. It’s a clarion call and would make an excellent set opener to their live show, “We’ve got so much to do; let me make that clear” Tucker demands as Weiss’ hi-hat creeps open and the track winds up into a rallying cry of a chorus, “We win, we lose; only together do we break the rules”. As declarations of unity go, ‘Surface Envy’ is pretty unwavering. Similarly the existential musings of the title track recall the bands’ hitherto loftiest watermark ‘Get Up’, the airy verses of ‘No Cities To Love’ revelling in their starry-eyed lyricism, “a bright flash, my body is a souvenir” Carrie Brownstein sing-sighs, before making an even firmer and more outward-gazing declaration of alliance, “It’s not the cities, it’s the weather we love/It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love” Brownstein and Tucker both finally rejoin, seemingly with a nod and wink.

A historically bass-free band, S-K nevertheless continue to find new and inventive ways of finding lower registers in their sound; some familiar, such as downtuned guitars or Weiss’s frequent tom hits, some unfamiliar. Goodmanson wrings a depthy, distorted growl from ‘Fade’s guitar tracks for example, but ‘A New Wave’ also makes the grand gesture of slamming a bassline right in your face, in a jokily high-timbred post-punk motorik riff. Bass has been used and hitherto undisguised so far, but is shoved right up front on ‘A New Wave’, everything but bass, drums and voice dropping out for its furious verses. Frazzled, distorted guitars frantically chop away occasionally until the chorus unfurls and Brownstein’s solos duel in the fadeout, unique in each channel.

Elsewhere bass is featured less prominently, as in ‘Fangless’, which also brandishes an updated, more restrained drum sound from Weiss’ kit and technique than Dave Fridmann’s trademark open-mic’d The Woods interpretation managed. Bass in ‘Fangless’’ verses chugs the track onwards through staccato, argumentative guitar lines until a seemingly endless chorus is launched into. Brownstein takes over on vocals as Tucker steps backwards, slashing wildly at her guitar following Weiss’ lead, who whisks the song up into a thrashing, full-on rock-out.

The band’s lyrics are stronger than ever, check out ‘No Anthems’ (“I want an anthem/A singular anthem/An answer and a force” Brownstein and Tucker rowdily duet after a strutting verse) for clear evidence of this. ‘Gimme Love’ is slick, soulful, bluesy, heavy, at times all at once, a little like the album in microcosm, Tucker’s voice wild and primal yet rich and beautiful. ‘Hey Darling’ recalls the scaling lead guitar work and half-spoken, half-sung chorus of ‘Oh!’, but even that One Beat standout doesn’t go for the sucker-punch ‘Hey Darling’ manages, its chorus melody sung wordlessly in the outro for one of the record’s many stand-out moments.

Finally, just when you think No Cities has surely given up all of its secrets and settled into a big, mid-tempo scorcher as a finale in ‘Fade’, the band defy all expectations. Contorting into a tempo change, call-and-response guitars ricocheting off each other; “Unbelievable masquerade/ Never revealing your truth” both vocalists chime in falsetto, resounding across a clattering, complex drum part. Sleater-Kinney have classically specialised in great closers (check out ‘Sympathy’ on One Beat, or ‘The Swimmer’ on All Hands as notable examples), but here they truly excel themselves. “Oh, what a price we have paid/ My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end” Brownstein shivers plaintively over the album’s dying embers, her voice cracking exquisitely.

As previously mentioned, No Cities To Love marks a subtle metamorphosis, a honed, clutter-free version of the Sleater-Kinney sound. There’s a dash of the wig-out bombasticism they learned on the previous album to enjoy, like the gleefully struck chords in ‘Fangless’’ middle eight. There’s also an effortless air to the whole affair, strongly recalling One Beat, but there are also highly-strung moments that render No Cities if not bipolar then certainly revelling in its light and shade. The band seem more assured of themselves than ever, their reunion album feeling joyfully baggage-free and is all the more of a treat for that.

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