A job well done: Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

The band has sharpened every song – every song – so that it declares its principles, marshals evidence, and concludes. After two plays I could look at a title and hum it. Not even Dig Me Out boasted such an impressive average. But if something has been gained, something’s been lost. So straightforward are the tunes that they lack resonance, like an X-Men sequel. “It’s not a new wave/it’s just you and me,” Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein declare on “A New Wave,” and “you and me” is what No Cities to Love lacks: the symbiosis by which each of the two singer-guitarists matched, answered, and countered the other’s words and riffs exists in their (and drummer Janet Weiss’) commitment to the project and their respective songs; on their own music, not so much. No Cities to Love isn’t two solo albums stapled together, it sounds like two songwriters playing together: a bit like their beloved Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan’s Go-Betweens dynamic. These structures, though, are sparsely inhabited. Also, and more debilitating, ten years apart yet the most feral of Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss’ songs concern the travails of being in a band whose country is owned by a plutocracy — you’d think they’d been peering out buses from Chicago to Champagne since 2005. I’m not calling for “personal” over “political” songs, as if this dumbfuck binary ever existed; in arrangements and chordal developments and verse-chorus-verse this perfunctory, however, their ethos feels like a manner, a sign of tentativeness. When the songs aren’t anthems, they’re prayers: “We win they lose/Only together, til we break the rules,” they shout on “Surface Envy.” Stick together, please, but the band develops the sentiment with the predictability of activists in 2015 starting a direct mail campaign.

A delight and a model of brevity, then, No Cities to Love is a reunion album for fans who want Tucker, Weiss, and Brownstein updates; the exceptions luxuriate in the clamor and tumult of their best work. Depending on a guitar line that drags Led Zep’s “Trampled Underfoot” through the mud, “Bury Our Friend” has Tucker and Brownstein together at last decrying our new guilded age, wild and weary but they won’t give in. And in “No Anthems” Sleater-Kinney as unit repudiates what I wrote; with Weiss rolling and tumbling and Tucker playing staccato variants on a rhythm riff, “I sang the songs of me, but now/There are no anthems” rings like a fire bell, an anti-anthem anthem.

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