It’s kind of odd, but Sleater-Kinney’s managed to somehow fly under the radar while being an indie rock institution. Recording since 1995, and with at least three classics (Dig Me Out, All Hands on the Bad One, and The Woods) in ten years, they deserve some serious acclaim. But, they seem borderline unheard-of outside indie music nerd circles, at least less so than Radiohead or Modest Mouse. S-K went on hiatus in 2006, but they left behind an underrated legacy: here’s a band that barely stumbled, and went from a riot grrl side project to one of the most respectable acts in indie rock.
And with a legacy like that, it’s no small wonder (but not unfortunate) that No Cities To Love is one of 2015’s first powerhouse releases. It doesn’t really sound like a Reunion Album, it sounds like whatever Sleater-Kinney album would come after 2004’s The Woods. The Woods is one of indie rock’s outright largest rockin’ albums, and No Cities To Love basically takes that record’s massive guitars, diamond-cut riffs, and pummeling rhythms and doles it out in two and three minute histrionic blasts.
What’s always made Sleater-Kinney stand out in their field is that this is a band without a clear successor; there’s no one out there doing quite what they do. Sure, they’ve influenced the likes of Savages and Perfect Pussy, but no one’s done a good imitation, not in the same way that Nirvana or Hole inspired a field of also-rans. I think this is a matter of pedigree; this band only exists because each member brings a distinct flavor to the table. Carrie Brownstein (yes, her) fires off tortured, angular guitar leads mixed with knotted, discordant riffs (see: “Surface Envy”). Janet Weiss is one of modern rock’s great drummers, and her hyperactive playing gives even the non-overt rockers like the title track a sense of urgency.
Doubling that urgency is Corin Tucker’s howling vocals, possibly the most unique thing about Sleater-Kinney. Tucker’s vocal style is heavy on yelps and teasing, drawn out enunciations, but features a surprising range. The style’s an interesting listen because half of Tucker’s range sounds like she’s ready to crack at any moment, but she has remarkable control, even when letting loose on “No Anthems” or the dynamic jump on “Price Tag” (her vocal control, plus the great melody, are what make “Hey Darling” memorable). And Tucker’s low-end guitar playing provides a great sometimes counterbalance/sometimes compliment to Brownstein’s. Sleater-Kinney’s combined sound, then, is the punk-y, muscular, and frequently sophisticated sound this combination makes when it goes barreling down a hill.
But, getting back to No Cities to Love as an album. It’s pretty great. At 10 songs in 32 minutes, it’s the shortest Kinney album since ’96, yet it’s still one of their most realized and accessible. On one hand, that means there aren’t any towering, singular statements like “Let’s Call It Love”, and the album’s unerring consistency means it’s a little easier for “Fangless” or “Bury Our Friends” to get swept up than it should be, but these feel like slight complaints in the face of how strong the whole product is. My favorite part is the four song run from “Surface Envy” to “No Anthems”: “Surface Envy” is a whirlwind of guitar fuzz and hysteric vocals grounded by Weiss, the title track is built on a two chord riff and an infectious vocal melody, “A New Wave” is the purest pop on the album, and gets contrasted with the tense, buzzing, bass-heavy “No Anthems”. The back half focuses more on that same scuzzy sound, culminating in “Fade”, which most resembles The Woods in terms of walls of distorted guitars.
Let me clarify what I said about No Cities to Love not sounding like most Reunion Albums. Most reunion albums have a low bar to clear because, even with a decent single or two, it’s hard to justify their existence as anything beyond a reason to back on a lucrative tour (with them in the new recently, it’s hard to not think of blink-182’s Neighborhoods as the textbook example of this). But No Cities to Love doesn’t sound like a band slumming it for some festival slots, it sounds like a band putting their momentum forward. Sleater-Kinney only came back because they had something to say, and I’m more than happy to listen. Four and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: Sleater-Kinney come roaring back to life, 4.5/5.