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.)

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – “Wig Out at Jagbags”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Lariat” “Surreal Teenagers”

At 47, Stephen Malkmus is very much an adult. He has had nothing to prove for many years, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still play music. His last few releases have served little purpose other than establishing Malkmus as the reluctant adult he is. And that’s where “Wig Out at Jagbags” stands – it’s youthful, but definitely adult. Malkmus seems like a ‘cool dad’ that will take his kids to shows and steal the neighbors wifi. His most well-known project, Pavement, served as an antidote to to those turned off by Nirvana and Sonic Youth in the early 90′s – deceivingly catchier, while still grungy and ear-aching. But now, Malkmus is comfortable making fun and diverse alternative that’s never great, but is always an easy listen.

“Wig Out of Jigbags” has a little of everything, like a less stoned Kurt Vile. “Lariat” has keyboards. “Houston Hades” heavily features a trombone. “Rumble at the Rainbo” is a punk blast and “Surreal Teenagers” has volume shifts akin to the Pavement years. The album feels like a mission statement – Malkmus is committed to having fun in the studio. The music doesn’t have much to it, and it doesn’t have to. These are songs Malkmus wants to record, and damn if he isn’t going to.

Lyrically, too, the album reflects Malkmus’s life. Some songs, specifically “Cinnamon and Lesbians,” are steeped in poetry, but some are simply referential. “Lariat” frequently mentions listening to music from the greatest decade, without ever saying what it is, and namedrops Tennyson and the Grateful Dead in the same line. The album has plenty of songs about age – reminiscent odes to growing up, and songs about accepting it when it happens. It’s a playful record, one that accepts adulthood with the stipulation of continuing to look at life through the eyes of an inspired teen. Malkmus is only aging physically, and it’s evident in his consistent releases. “Wig Out at Jagbags” won’t gain many new fans, but the payoff is Malkmus knowing his audience.

If you like this, try: Lee Ranaldo & the Dust’s “Last Night on Earth” – Another fun and eclectic album recorded by an alt god stripped of his band.