by Matt J. Popham
Is it too early to announce the Best Album of 2015…?
“No Cities to Love,” Sleater-Kinney’s dramatic, commanding return, picks up exactly where they left off almost 10 years ago, and confidently strides forward without missing a beat. Before the dissonant, groove-and-grind opener, “Price Tag,” has even finished, it’s clear what a hole their hiatus left in the sonic landscape. An exceptional, essential band at the time of their departure, the album proves they have remained peerless even in absentia, as each and every successive track shows them to be as vital, as inventive, and as passionate as ever.
Fortifying the musical ground gained on the echoing expanses of 2005’s “The Woods,” “No Cities to Love” is, all at once, focused and diverse, familiar and dynamic. Bristling with restless energy, each song feels alive and organic, almost mercurial, as the interplay of instruments and voices is continuously redefined and reformulated, but without ever losing a decisive sense of purpose and structure. Carrie Brownstein’s and Corin Tucker’s sinuous guitars intertwine as expertly as ever, but it’s breathtaking how quickly they can now erupt into jarring dissonance, only to retreat, collide, and gracefully coalesce into beautiful harmonies, each evolution mirrored and countered by their distinctive, alternating vocals, and propelled by Janet Weiss’ powerful cannon-fire percussion. Perfectly reflecting the band’s progressive sociopolitical stance, this is music that demands attention, refusing to sit still or behave.
But what’s most surprising about “No Cities to Love” isn’t just how skillfully it keeps you on your toes, but how frequently it gets you on your feet. Though there’s no shortage of challenging, angular attacks and discordant, punk distortion, it’s an unrepentantly groovy album, fearlessly embracing catchy melodies and hip-shaking rhythms. “Fangless” rocks an 80’s pop vibe, while the title track offers an irresistibly singable chorus, and an affecting interlude during which Brownstein delivers her most soulful and melodious vocal performance since Wild Flag’s “Black Tiles.” The typically take-no-prisoners Weiss plays with tight and textured restraint on the simultaneously self-deprecating and celebratory “A New Wave” (possibly the album’s most charmingly approachable track). And despite the dark, astringent snarl of “No Anthems,” “Surface Envy” is defiantly, rousingly anthemic and, given the lyrics, might even be read as the album’s mission statement. Of course, it all sounds unmistakably, undeniably like Sleater-Kinney. How could it not? After two decades and eight albums, the band has become so assured in their singular chemistry and unique aesthetic that, like latter-day Beatles or Fugazi, they can seamlessly adapt any sonic inspiration to suit their particular style and sound.
Whether or not they continue to record regularly, sporadically, or not at all, Sleater-Kinney’s status as one of the best and most important bands of this century (or the last) is long secured and “No Cities to Love” will only further cement their musical legacy. Charged with a push-pull intensity, as pleasing and playful as it is spirited and uncompromising, it’s an exhilarating display of the band’s prodigious abilities and fierce commitment – to music, to each other, to their shared past and future – that refuses to be contained or pinned-down. Securely rooted in their remarkable accomplishments, while continuing to push restlessly, relentlessly forward, “No Cities to Love” is a capital achievement.