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.
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.