by Art Carny
Top tracks: Fangless, No Cities To Love, A New Wave
Hello, dear readers and music freaks. I’d like to thank the stellar folks at The Rogue Ape for extending the exclusive and privileged invitation to join their contributing team and fraternity. In a way, this is a sweetly harmonious reunion. My collaborative resume of side projects include the life force and philosophically-driven Search for Como blogcast and The Gioia Review, which although sadly no longer in action, has brought me here and back to writing about music, joining forces with the mind behind the man behind the myth, the Insomniac and his perspicacious crew. So in short, hi and thanks.
Speaking of reunions, let’s talk about the album I chose to review: No Cities To Love by Portland’s own Sleater-Kinney, who ended a hiatus that began as an unannounced separation in 2006. Since then the riot girl trio, although divided, remained active and pleasantly productive. Corin had a family and pursued a solo career as the Corin Tucker Band. Janet, the drummer, was involved in oh, let’s see… Quasi, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Bright Eyes, and the side project Wild Flag. Carrie, also in Wild Flag, pursued an acting career that lead her to co-star in the popular comedy series Portlandia with SNL’s Fred Armisen among other TV and film opportunities. And yet, after almost ten years on break, the band got back together, recorded an album, and have been touring ever since.
But comebacks in the music world can be undisguisedly and sometimes unabashedly money grabs; the Pixies come to mind. The tour they last put together seemed like a haphazard front for Black Francis to recapture lightning in a bottle and sell some merch to oblivious teens in the process. Plus, if you’re not going to have Kim Deal with the band, it’s really not a reunion.
Others can feel like high school reunions, where the band gets back together for obliged reasons and go on a nostalgia tour, only to realize how much they’ve aged and that reasons for the break-up were legitimate and insurmountable; Pavement comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I went to the reunion show at Central Park. I had to. I always loved Pavement. I still look to them as one of the most important groups to come out of alternative music in the last twenty five years. But they had their window and left their mark. Malkmus was Malkmus, a brilliant lyricist poet and under-appreciated guitar god that was ultimately very tough to get along with over the period in which they conquered. As a bystander at the show, you could feel the smarmy Malkmus begrudgingly go along with it, only halfheartedly embracing the moment. That was 2010 and despite it all, I wish I could see it once more.
No Cities To Love feels like a sandwich your mom used to make you when you were young. It was your favorite sandwich and to this day you can still taste the flavors and smell the bread and toppings. You remember the first time you tasted it and the feeling of home you get when you reminisce about it. You would probably pay a lot of money to have that same sandwich again, just the way mom used to make it. This album feels like that sandwich. It’s so them, so authentic, so unique that it feels as if SK never took a break. They’ve picked up right where they left off with The Woods in 2005, and in my opinion, created a new feel fit for the time in which they currently exist. So many times we try to capture a moment long gone, only to find that a feeling can never truly be replicated. What you do learn over time, which SK teaches us all, is that adapting to the current context is the secret to survival and longevity.
Reunions, much like mom’s sandwich, are simply attempts to recapture a time, a feeling, and a moment. But this SK reunion is different in so many ways. Where Black Francis pandered and begged for the crowd’s approval, “I don’t know if you’ll accept me; I don’t know if I accept you. But we have this memory. Can we do it again?” proved the Pixies have nothing left to say. SK reminded everyone that they were ready to do this together, and more importantly, do it right. They’ve also shown that they are in charge of their own (self)acceptance. The fans wanted them back, not the other way around. The album is proof that patience with timing is everything and that forcing something will never create art.
Chad Batka for The New York Times – SK live @ Terminal 5
This whole reunion business aside, I’d like to talk briefly about the state of girl bands in alternative music today. When SK met their sudden and quiet demise in 2006, no all-girl roster ever sufficiently filled their spot. SK provided a baton to be grabbed, but we saw them running a relay race in which they were the only participants. No girl band has done what they’ve done at the level and complexity they have. I’ve been a fan and follower of countless women in rock, but they always had male counterparts in the group (Georgia of Yo La Tengo, Kim of Sonic Youth, Britt of Luna, etc.). It was not until 2013 with the unheralded Hell Bent album from Northampton, MA’s own Potty Mouth did I hear something as original, honest, and veracious come out from a rock band made up of women. It is important to note that members of both SK and Potty Mouth have astutely pointed out the double standard in rock, which is that no one interviews an all male band and asks them how or why they got into the music as a bunch of men. We openly accept music as a guy thing, just as we do in sports, and tend to compartmentalize things women do as their own thing, meant to be separated, treated distinctly, and labeled as such. Let’s face it, no one is making a list of their favorite guy bands, unless they are referring to boy bands, which I find equally repulsive and damnable.
As I gingerly step off the soap box I am proudly perched on, I digress and offer a chance to dive into the album itself. There’s a real social commentary getting discussed in each song, making the album a conceptual work that confronts the realities faced by women in an eternally unequal society. In an interview with PBS, Janet Weiss talked about the importance SK’s message is for their audience by saying, “that’s part of my role being a musician and part of why I want to be a musician is to show women an alternative to the sort of the cultural norms and the stereotypes of what we are supposed to do.” As a guy, I find them to be one of the only true socially-minded and self aware bands out there. Call them activists or feminists, but the message is universal; we are all here suffering in some way, let’s find a way to band together and realize things can be okay.
Take out preconceived notions of what you think punk sounds like and you’ll begin to find that No Cities To Love is post-modern punk in its truest form. The album feels much like their live show in that they never take their foot off the peddle. One after another, each song hits you with a consistent force that remains unwavering from start to finish. Relentless sounds and sentiments “Clenched fist on a dangling arm/Fight’s over, but I’ll fight on” and just when you’re ready for a breather, they come back with another hook like prizefighters. It’s because the music never died for SK. There was always a flame, fledgling when apart, but rekindled and blaring once more.
People who know Carrie for her time spent on Portlandia will be surprised to discover she’s the best lead guitarist in her craft. Her attention to detail is only appreciated with multiple listens, as many of the complex jangles appear to go unnoticed upon first exposure. Janet is, without a doubt, one of the greatest drummers I’ve had the chance to hear. This spans gender, genre, and time. She goes one hundred miles per hour and each smack is visceral. As for Corin, I don’t think SK would be who they are without her. She possesses the most identifiable unique voice in rock, for both the sound and content. She still hits the high notes and her writing has either improved or stayed along the premiere constant it has always existed on. Together, they form the most impressive and powerful trio in rock.
The rock world needed SK and their return was welcomed with open arms. They’ve become more popular now than they were when they walked away. This reunion was special, much like my return to music reviewing, with a hiatus that began exactly a year ago. I’ve taken a page from SK’s book and decided that a return to writing with the prestigious and ingenious Rogue Ape brought an opportunity that posed impeccable timing and placement. I hope you enjoy their album and some of what I write about moving forward.