Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Price Tag” “No Cities to Love” “Bury Our Friends”

Confession: This isn’t my first review of 2015. That belongs to Meghan Trainor’s “Title.” But do you know how cliche the metaphor is to start the year with a review of a debut? No, the first review of the year needs to be something more momentous – a comeback (and one that fits in well with my recent post on feminism in music, something Trainor does *not* fall under). So here, one of the biggest comebacks a blog like this could ask for – the first Sleater-Kinney album in 10 years.

Sleater-Kinney never really gave us a reason for their hiatus in 2006. It just seemed like they suddenly appeared, and suddenly disappeared. So, nine years after, it seems just as odd that they’d come back, especially given their successes – Janet Weiss has since played with the Shins, Wild Flag, Stephen Malkmus, and the densely uncrackable trio Drumgasm; Corin Tucker has found solo success; and Carrie Brownstein has found mainstream success as one-half of the largely improvised IFC show Portlandia (as well as Wild Flag). But 2015 needs Sleater-Kinney more than Sleater-Kinney needs 2015. We’ve caught up to their third-wave feminism; their leftist politics may have been “radical” for music in the 90’s (sad) but sound more anthemic today. There’s a revolution looming, and we’ve left Sleater-Kinney’s throne open for their welcome return.

Nearly needless to say, it’s an incredibly successful return. While Sleater-Kinney have never been a challenging band, their varying albums do rely on the listener to interpret the music, rather than the band. And for a band that’s woven through indie rock, riot grrrl and classic rock, “No Cities to Love” feels like a retrospective, that lets the listener reflect on which Sleater-Kinney exactly they’re listening to. Although “No Cities to Love” often sways sonically towards an indie S-K, it packs punk punches, and it’s brimming with energizing, political lyrics that are seemingly banned from indie otherwise. S-K’s political and social lyrics have never sounded fiercer, stronger, and Tucker’s vocals have a catchy scowl to them that entice the listener into their fury.

The album starts, by no coincidence, with “Price Tag.” The band sound like they’re restraining energy, not wanting to exhaust the listener from the get-go; but the lyrics about overspending on both political and personal levels rival the most ferocious and specific lyrics Against Me! or Sonic Youth could dream of. “A New Wave” matches the album’s catchiest, bounciest music with equally anthemic lyrics. “Surface Envy”‘s lyrics about making and breaking rules might sound a little tired, but S-K always have a way of putting out their own spin. And late-album highlight “Bury Your Friends” isn’t as political, but looks at the apathy of burying and reviving friends and idols (kind of like early songs by, well, Sonic Youth).

Musically, “No Cities to Love” leaps around. The title track is one of a few songs that’s outright catchy, with the band exploring its indie side. But “Surface Envy,” “No Anthems,” and “Fade” are all aided by a heavier, denser sound. Brownstein’s guitar is heavy throughout, reinforcing her importance and virtuosity in the guitar world. “Hey Darling” sounds like an indie track but has an unexpected heavy guitar, and “Surface Envy” has a dissonant chord running through its verses. “Bury Our Friends” even takes on a more mechanic tone at times, sounding more rehearsed and intentionally repeating than other tracks.

The Sleater-Kinney we get in 2015 is a mix of previous Sleater-Kinney’s, and it’s necessary blending. Indie and punk have come a long way in 10 years, and can go hand-in-hand now (whereas separated by sharp divides in 2005, unless you were Karen O or a member of Sleater-Kinney). “No Cities to Love” is rarely uneven, often totally complete, and serious in its beliefs. Comeback albums are tricky, but I don’t think there was much doubt that Sleater-Kinney could succeed in a world even more in need of political anthems. Leftist, catchy, angry and energetic, “No Cities to Love” is exactly what you want from a Sleater-Kinney album, just in the year 2015. Setting the bar high early, we’re 1-0 in great albums so far.

If you like this, try: Aside from rechecking your teen angst, rehanging posters you had in your bedroom in 1998, and remembering why you picked up a guitar in the first place, check out Potty Mouth’s 2013 debut, “Hell Bent.” Although more outwardly punk, Potty Mouth owe a lot to S-K’s feminist indie-punk sound.

-By Andrew McNally

(Okay. 1-1. Meghan Trainor review to be posted later.)

Drumgasm – “Drumgasm”

(Photo Credit: exclaim.ca)

Grade: A-

There’s very little to say about this album, other than your ears are about to get audited. “Drumgasm” is the debut album from the instrumental percussion supergroup consisting of Janet Weiss (formerly from Sleater-Kinney, now drummer for Wild Flag), Matt Cameron (of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) and Zach Hill (of Hella, Marnie Stern and, importantly, Death Grips). All three drummers are known for a brash, edgier, sound – Hill especially – so there was already going to be an intense factor to this album. What makes it all the more intense and ear-busting, though, is it’s total improvisation. The three drummers are heard at the beginning of the album chatting, trying to figure out a plan before they decide to just start playing and see what happens. Their voices aren’t heard again until after they finish, as they congratulate each other.

The album consists of just two tracks, both called “Drumgasm.” Both songs hover almost exactly around twenty minutes, and focus more on skill and intensity, rarely finding a groove or constant beat. There are extended moments where one drummer is featured more prominently than the other two, and although it’s impossible to determine who it is, it’s not unwise to assume it’s Hill, based purely on speed and intensity.

This album excels best as a concept – a truly improvised duo of brash drum pieces without names. If percussion interests you at all (as it does to me), then this album is like a undeserved present. There are call-and-response moments, there are moments where the three work together to berate the volume of your speakers, and there are moments where they fall out of line with each other and it sounds messy. It’s got mistakes and miscues. Of course it does, it’s improvised, and although those missteps aren’t appealing, they further build the concept. The album’s only real fault, a “fault” that shouldn’t be blamed on the musicians, and the same one that could be attributed to most jazz, is that listening is a commitment. There are no breaks, and although the listener gets sucked in, it is immediately lost when either track is paused (I streamed the album via Pitchfork Advance, and my internet connection was lost 15 minutes into the first track). This is a really original album, and it’s execution is nearly perfect. It is loud and abrasive, musically interesting, yet it is ultimately three people having fun and messing around in the studio, and I recommend it as both a fun, and a sonically complex and challenging listen. Somehow.

-By Andrew McNally