I’m the queen of rock and roll.
This line, from Sleater-Kinney’s 1996 sophomore outing Call The Doctor, was delivered more tauntingly and angrily than triumphantly. It wasn’t yet a declaration, with the band still in its youngest era and lacking a stable drummer. It was more of a mission statement—less about filling a role of the male rock superstar as it is displayed (mockingly) in “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and more about stretching the boundaries about what it means to be a “rock star” in modern America.
Sarcastic intentions or not, by the time Sleater-Kinney’s initial run fizzled out in 2006, Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (best known in recent years from her work in the IFC comedy series Portlandia) were the queens of rock and roll. From 1995’s sonic eruption of Sleater-Kinney to 2005’s equally loud but significantly grander The Woods, the members of Sleater-Kinney declared themselves as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time finest and let out a fierce, guttural scream at the constructed and accepted norms of our society.
The band’s first full-length in ten years is not merely an echo of that scream muted by time, new projects, or maturation. Instead, No Cities To Love is just as loud and clear, just as pissed-off and affective as ever. Flaunting all of the aggression of 1996’s Call the Doctor with the top-notch songwriting and confidence of The Woods, No Cities To Love sees Sleater-Kinney returning at full force.
And they hit the ground running. Opener “Price Tag” wastes no time lingering on the fact that this is the band’s first album in ten years, there’s no huge build-up to what surely is a pressurized can of expectations pent up over a decade of silence. No. Weiss, Tucker and Brownstein just launch right in to a blazing release of frustration at the monotony of routine life and the modern fixation on money. Brownstein’s opening riff is bouncy and sinister and immediately draws listeners back in to the distinct but ever-evolving sound of Sleater-Kinney’s tight, hooky but incredibly complex brand of punk rock. Brownstein’s and Tucker’s guitar lines bare their fangs at each other in somehow beautiful and rousing harmony, as Tucker’s assertive, intense vocals seem once again to lead an army of today’s discontents into a sort of moral, spiritual and societal war.
Each of No Cities To Love’s ten tracks delivers an attack on the powerful and corrupt, and strives to unify the outcasts, the underrepresented and the wrongfully suppressed. “Surface Envy” has all of the gusto and spirit of a classic punk rock song, a vocal back-and-forth with Brownstein and Tucker culminating in a chanting, anthemic chorus of, “Only together do we break the rules.” “Bury Our Friends” carries on in a similar fashion as a proclamation of self-awareness and self-empowerment—“Only I get to be sickened by me…we’re wild and weary, but we won’t give in.”
And this is the essence of the album as a whole, and indeed much of Sleater-Kinney’s back catalog—not letting the perceived notions of what a person should be stop them from being everything they can be. The band proves this point better than they ever have before simply by releasing an album this fantastic ten years removed from their last. That magic is supposed to be gone by now, isn’t it? No Cities To Love is a swift “to hell with that notion” jammed into 33 minutes of intense, passionate and damn good rock and roll music.
No Cities To Love is capped off by the doomsday march of “Fade,” a siren-sounding lead riff leading the listener to emergency, a signifier of time running out more quickly than we imagined. Weiss’s drum lines build steadily to an apex and then die off into cautioned cymbal ticks as Tucker warns, “If there’s no tomorrow, you better live.” “Fade” begs us to make the most of our time as Tucker’s razor-sharp croon nearly seems to be coming from another world—“if we are truly dancing our swansong, darling/shake it like never before.”
Sleater-Kinney’s eighth record embodies this idea, with every minute exuding this tension of having so much to say and do but so little time and space to do it. As a result, No Cities To Love is a blast of colorful, liberating, fist-in-the-air sing-along rock music that is so dense and satisfying that it’s good enough to hold us off for another ten years– but let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long. We need the queens of rock and roll now more than ever.
Jordan Walsh can be reached at Jordan.Walsh@theminaretonline.com.