Music

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love

The alternative rock band's first record in a decade exceeds all expectations of what a reunion album should sound like by not sounding like a reunion album at all.


Sleater-Kinney

No Cities to Love

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2015-01-20
UK Release Date: 2015-01-19
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Just a year ago, the idea of an eighth Sleater-Kinney album seemed like one of those distant pipe dreams that rock fans hold onto despite mounting evidence that it’ll never happen. For years there were a string of hopeful signs that the group, who had been disbanded since 2006, might reunite: guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss’s new band Wild Flag ended quietly; vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker made a cameo on Brownstein’s sketch comedy TV show Portlandia; the trio joined Pearl Jam on stage to perform together for the first time in years. Still, all three members were insistent that rumors of a reunion had no basis in fact.

Then there was news: a new album, No Cities to Love, and an accompanying tour. A few months later, it’s already here. It’s been a dizzying turn of events.

The ten-year-long hiatus gave Sleater-Kinney the opportunity to recalibrate and restructure their music. Instead of branching off of the hard rock experimentalism of their 2005 album, critical favorite The Woods, they severed their ties and began anew with the basics: angular, discordant guitar riffs, jittery drum beats, husky vocals and tight, focused songwriting. The defining elements of the band’s more commercially-leaning albums -- The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat and The Woods -- inform the fundamental foundation of No Cities to Love, especially the classically catchy hooks on “Hey Darling", “No Cities to Love” and “Bury Your Friends", but they don’t neglect their sneering punk legacy, either, with heavier cuts like “Fade” and “No Anthems". Some old tricks come off a little rusty, like the on-the-nose political analogy at the heart of “Price Tag”, which links consumerist attitudes to the world’s crumbling economies (“We never check the price tag," Tucker wails in the chorus). Of course, Sleater-Kinney have never been discreet about their social commentary, and it’s not as if they are trying and failing to recapture the old magic—they’ve just been out of the game so long. A couple small missteps on a great comeback record is remarkably easy to forgive and forget.

It’s not all familiar territory, either. As they’ve always done, Sleater-Kinney pack their greatest assets into a refined package and adorn it with a fresh, untested design. Where The Woods experimented with ornamental guitar solos, structural diversions and noisy jams, No Cities to Love takes a condensed and measured approach. With no song longer than four minutes, the hooks -- both vocal and instrumental -- dominate the mood of each track. Whether it’s Tucker’s sweetly melodic chorus in “Hey Darling” or the deranged guitar interludes on “No Anthems", there’s an immediately memorable section in each song, making for what is probably the band’s most widely accessible album to date.

This is made even more evident by the sterling production handled by John Goodmanson, who produced three previous Sleater-Kinney records but outdoes himself on No Cities to Love. Full guitars, crisp drums and a livelier, more intricate mix give the band the sound they’ve always deserved but never really received. Listen to the ripping distorted guitar on “A New Wave” do battle with the crack of the snare and pop of the clean guitar, or the satisfying buzz between thick, crunchy licks on “Bury Our Friends". Sonically, it’s the best Sleater-Kinney have ever sounded, and after the blown-out disaster of The Woods, having a follow-up as immaculately produced as No Cities to Love is an unbelievable blessing.

Of course, reunited bands often return with a cleaner and tighter sound, in most cases sterilizing the very essence of their music and effectively speeding their descent into irrelevance. In Sleater-Kinney’s case, this refinement only makes their virtues more apparent, bringing depth to their acrobatic guitarwork and polishing their already incredible songwriting abilities into perfectly manicured tracks. It should be said that Sleater-Kinney have never released a less than stellar record, so in a way there was no real need for them to come back; they had nothing to prove that they hadn’t proved already. But album after album they continue to top themselves, always pushing ahead somehow, even with a decade between releases. No Cities to Love exceeds all expectations of what a reunion album should sound like by not sounding like a reunion album. There’s no dead air between it and The Woods, just beautiful, logical forward movement. In short, it’s a Sleater-Kinney fan’s dream come true.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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