Archive for sleater-kinney

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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The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy [Album]

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2010 by David Hall


Originally published at Sonic Dice, August 2009.

The title Welcome Joy can be read in a variety of differing ways; a sanctimonious religious command, an open-armed embrace or a positive observation concerning happiness perhaps. The Cave Singers’ sophomore album manages to convey the latter two without pretension, providing a lush and melodic listen. Former Pretty Girls Make Graves bassist Derek Fudesco has said in previous interviews that his guitar parts with The Cave Singers are essentially just bass riffs. This rings true on Welcome Joy, whose circular guitar arrangements inhabit the groove-based repetition of the most effective bass lines.

Welcome Joy begins with the appropriately-titled Summer Light, which recalls the look and feel of the album’s cover, its summery and warm touches of organ in the unfolding verses evoking the artworks’ orange tones. The cover is a nostalgic view of the world through an aperture that banishes modern figures like keyboards to the shot’s background. Similarly, Summer Light’s keys sound analogue, with folkish guitar and vocal arrangements that are also pleasingly old-fashioned; the evocative name equally recalls the song’s sound and feel. Female vocals in the background of the chorus line, “They’re damned if they’re right and they’re damned if they’re wrong, they don’t mind” are particularly divine. Singer Pete Quirk’s lyrics frequently stand out as strongly poetic, “Dance in the doldrums of each new day” further linking the semantic use of orange palettes to the visual. Leap’s frantic pulloff-hammer on riff is great, effortlessly propulsive when coupled with Marty Lund’s urgent drum track. Quirk’s raspy countrified vocals are excellent, mixed to be less gratingly abrasive than on debut Invitation Songs. A bridge sees the track really hitting its stride with a cymbal hit as bass enters and harmonica squawks in. The song evolves enchantingly as it forges ahead into another verse more urgent than the first; The Cave Singers clearly know where their strengths lie and adhere to their formula. Shrine’s quiet droning chorus is a departure and also a welcome one, ensuring that whilst verging on being formulaic at times, Welcome Joy steers clear of being predictable. This track is a case in point that these aren’t complex songs; they’re very simple, and I doubt the band would have a problem with that observation. The riff and appropriately Eastern percussion of Shrine follow on from Summers Light’s blissful glow, easy and reassuring in its tones. A middle eight briefly presses on noisily to skilfully maintain momentum before settling back into its meandering flow and quiet rumbling bass.

The most fleshed-out song yet Hen of the Woods incorporates nice distant rim shots and a riff reminiscent of Daughters of the Soho Riots or Start a War by The National. In its outro the track quickens to a country-tinged Sleater-Kinney-style guitar solo set against a shifting drum shuffle. Again the lyrics are carefully arranged, well written, considered and thoughtful on lines such as “Evening comes, it’s a curtain and a shawl”. They’re joyfully and sincerely delivered, again evocative of the album’s aged artwork in scenes of American prairies, sunsets and romance. Quirk sounds like an American David Gray on the pleasantly primitive Beach House – yes I know, these comparisons are meant to be achingly indie and obscure, but if the boot fits – even if the “just myself/no one else” chorus couplet is desperately unoriginal. I Don’t Mind, with its gentle high-capoed acoustic strum and more strident drums, follows Hen of the Woods’ lead in sounding less like Welcome Joy’s sketchier tracks. Despite the songs with a fuller drum sound generally being that bit more immediate (most tracks settle for a sparing New Slang-esque percussion track), this is arguably one of the album’s least memorable moments. VV sounds a bit like that cute I Tried to do Handstands for You iPod advert song with its calypso acoustic chord progression. The electric guitar riff recalls that from The Postal Service’s Recycled Air, only obviously less robotic; the chord sequence’s nicely merged variation in the bridge is particularly organic-sounding.

Welcome Joy sounds a lot more expansive than Invitation Songs, which sounded strangled at times by its limited component parts. At the Cut proves a natural punkabilly progression from previous track Leap’s folkabilly drumming, its rambling jangle reminiscent of the UK’s Sons and Daughters. There’s a certain world-weary wisdom to the singers voice here, mirrored by the vintage guitar’s ‘50’s tone in its solo. At the Cut is also a bit like Franz Ferdinand’s Ulysses in places (no, seriously), perhaps providing a bit of a British connection, which should go down well at this winter’s Shred Yr Face tour. Townships is simply gorgeous, an affective highlight which is probably the best track on the album. It features the most natural sounding riff, the least metronomic and most irregular, and a great semi-acoustic guitar tone. Quirk’s vocal is also one of his most natural deliveries, charmingly imperfect and almost croaky in places. The higher timbre to his multi-tracked vocal lends the track a transcendent, skyline-surfing feel. Chiming guitars coil around a semi-chanted chorus, recalling Fleet Foxes’s earthy yet spiritual melancholy sound. Bramble closes the album with a complex fingerpicked acoustic guitar intro resembling that of Leap a tad too closely for comfort. But on the positive side, like all songs on Welcome Joy there is nothing more to Bramble than there needs to be. It’s a very stark and natural beauty that this album carries, like a beautiful model photographed without makeup or a woodland copse untouched by human hands. A natural reverb on the vocal lends it a stark and atmospheric demo-like quality.

When reviewing The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, I briefly considered whether or not to recommend it to fans of The Cave Singers. This was on the basis that both bands have a stark, unembellished and definitively American sound; they also exhibit the same rootsy, lo-fi sensibilities, which produce their latest records’ appealing personalities. However, I foolishly decided against doing so, due to my belief that Cave Singers were probably too little-known over here at this point. I anticipate being proved wrong in thinking so in the near future, after the exposure the aforementioned Shred Yr Face jaunt and this latest excellent release will gain them.

9 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 5 out of 6

Townships on Spotify
Taking the best elements of other highlights Summer Light and Hen of the Woods, Townships practically sounds like it was painted.

Matador
The Cave Singers on Myspace