Reunion albums are typically met with a deserving degree of cynicism. The conventional narrative in rock is that it's music for and by young people; bands that stay together over multiple decades are believed to be on an inevitable downward slide. So many reunion albums are more an excuse for the band to go on tour and play the hits than to contribute anything new to their discography.
Enter Sleater-Kinney, a band that has built a career out of subverting rock conventions. "No Cities to Love," the trio's eighth studio album and their first in nearly a decade, honors their legacy as one of the most important rock groups in the world. It's the rare reunion album that sounds just as urgent as the band's earlier work.
Coming out of the Olympia, Washington riot grrrl scene, Sleater-Kinney quickly became one of the most vital bands in indie rock. The combination of Corin Tucker's howl, Carrie Brownstein's angular guitar work and Janet Weiss's expert drumming was electric, but they were driven by restlessness to never become stagnant. The group went on to release seven albums between 1995 and 2005, each successive release building on their sound in inventive ways. Their self-titled debut was a sparse punk record, but by their last record, 2005’s "The Woods," they were working with The Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann and exploring classic rock and psychedelia.
During their decade-long hiatus, Tucker released two solo records, Weiss played with Stephen Malkmus and Bright Eyes and Brownstein co-created the IFC sketch comedy show “Portlandia” with Fred Armisen. Despite their individual endeavors, "No Cities to Love" makes the case that the three women work better together than they do apart. "We win, we lose / Only together do we break the rules," Tucker belts in the chorus of the triumphant "Surface Envy." The second time she sings the line, it becomes "Only together do we make the rules." It's a great summary of Sleater-Kinney's ethos as a group that has continually redefined what it means to be a punk band.
What's remarkable about "No Cities to Love" is how alive it feels — it's a record that is deeply human, both in its sound and its politics. Opener "Price Tag" explores working class anxiety in the post-recession years, with its angst channeled into Brownstein's explosive guitar riff and Weiss' frenzied drumming. The poppy "A New Wave" expresses the band's refusal to be pigeonholed by their gender, with Brownstein emphatically declaring that "no outline will ever hold us." On "Hey Darling" Tucker gives a phenomenal vocal performance, as she voices her concerns about returning to Sleater-Kinney after so much time away. "It seems to me the only thing that comes from fame's mediocrity / How could you steal the thing I love and keep it from me just out of touch," she roars, her voice full of uncertainty and doubt.
"I still feel like there really just isn’t a settled version of this band," Brownstein said in an interview this week. "This is an entity that, for me, really encompasses a constant sense of agitation at the world." That refusal to settle more than justifies the existence of "No Cities to Love;" it's the kind of thrilling record that feels like it requires another hundred listens to comprehend in its entirety. Sleater-Kinney have not only met but exceeded expectations of what these three women can create together 20 years into their existence as a band. On "No Cities to Love," Sleater-Kinney rip the rock playbook to shreds, making and breaking the rules together once again.
Tracks: "A New Wave," "Bury Your Friends," "Hey Darling"
If you like: Wild Flag, Bikini Kill, Sonic Youth