Sleater-Kinney continues the conversation in 'No Cities to Love'

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Sleater-Kinney's fiery first album in 10 years picks up right where the band left off

In rock years, a decade between albums is a lifetime. The Beatles moved from "I Saw Her Standing There" to "Golden Slumbers" in less a span. Hip-hop jumped from "The Message" to "Paul's Boutique." In human terms, a child born when Portland, Ore., guitar band Sleater-Kinney released its last album, 2005's "The Woods," before going on an indefinite hiatus would be in fifth grade now as the band releases its quick, fiery "No Cities to Love."

It's the band's eighth album and is certainly a continuation. As before, Janet Weiss drives songs written and sung by Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, who swap lines and ideas like sisters finishing each other's sentences. "Exhume our idols and bury our friends," they sing on "Bury Our Friends." "We're wild and weary, but we won't give in."

At their best, the record's 10 tracks sound predestined, 33 minutes of tight, eloquent arguments that explore ideals of structural precision as valued by post-punk groups including Wire, Bikini Kill, Minutemen and the Pixies. For context, "No Cities" is half as long as the maximalist "The Woods" and more in tune with the band's breakout classics, "Call the Doctor" and "Dig Me Out."

None of the new songs extends beyond four minutes. "Hey Darling" rolls through its 2:27 running time with a compactness that belies its complexities. The oblong guitar line that drives "Surface Envy" sounds so wrong it's just gotta be right, especially when an equally dissonant few chords lock in to augment it.

Like "Surface Envy," the best songs on "No Cities" are beautiful algebraic equations that solve problems that researchers never even knew existed, moving logically yet filled with left-turn riff maneuvers. Others are less extravagant. "Gimme Love" is your basic angular punk song: a couple of insistent, shout-along verses built around a slightly askew set of chords and a bridge that comes just when it should — but still surprises.

Forming in 1994, the rock trio of Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss over its pre-break years grew to become one of the most vital American rock bands of its generation. Through wildly infectious songs "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," "Heart Factory," "Male Model," "Wilderness" and dozens more, Sleater-Kinney became not only a symbol of what they termed "the hot rock" but also for artistic integrity. Thoughtful both onstage and off, they became known as creators who made decisions with eyes not on Grammys but on independence.

Since they announced the break in 2006, singer/guitarist Brownstein gracefully moved from headliner to blogger to co-founder of rock band Wild Flag to comedic actress best known for co-creating and starring in "Portlandia." Singer/guitarist Tucker released two excellent records as the Corin Tucker Band and is raising two children with her husband, director Lance Bangs. Weiss has become a go-to touring and session drummer.

The sabbatical and return affords listeners the opportunity to appreciate Sleater-Kinney's output in a broader context and to hear "No Cities to Love" as the continuation of a conversation that's been going on for decades. On "No Cities," the band sharpens the point of the same pencil whose users through the decades have scratched in the margins of the so-called rock canon, crossing out passages, challenging notions, adding commentary, calling bull on one-sided arguments. In the process, these artists inked a whole other tome, one that carried the messages of 1970s and '80s feminism and combined them with the "Why not?" spirit of punk.

"No Cities to Love," to me, feels like the most recent chapter, informed by the spirit of 45s, cassette mix-tapes, ideas spread through list-servs and MP3s, secrets screamed and whispered, stories inked on lyric sheets and in song. It's Kim Gordon repeating "fear of a female planet" in "Kool Thing." It's Patti Smith in "Break It Up": "I ripped my skin open and then I broke through." It's "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" as delivered by Poly Styrene. It's Bikini Kill, the Slits, Beth Ditto, PJ Harvey, Mecca Normal, Meg White, Mish Way, Meredith Graves, a glorious continuum that's more crucial to rock's present and future than the collected work of U2, Coldplay, Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins combined.

Still, I've got a little beef with "No Cities to Love," and it has to do with the mix. Specifically, Weiss is on fire throughout this record, back there maneuvering through beats and rhythms that are as fresh and breathtaking as Tucker and Brownstein's dueling bass and guitars. Yet to my ears there's a certain flatness to "No Cities to Love" that hinders full access to her efforts.

With its dub-inspired beat, "Price Tag" is a funky song, but it's mixed for 2006 ears, too trebly. It's as though LCD Soundsystem never happened and partly masks how infectiously danceable "No Cities to Love" is. That rhythmic distance is a drag and sonically diminishes the whole.

This is about the only band trait that has remained static. Musically, the band is hitting new chords and exploring structures with glee and with that same crucial energy propelling it.



"No Cities to Love"

(Sub Pop)

3.5 stars out of 4

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