Would riot grrrl still be a movement without SLEATER-KINNEY? Probably. Would it be anywhere near as righteous? Hell no.
My initial encounter with Sleater-Kinney’s music was through their renowned 1997 album Dig Me Out, after noticing the cover was distinctly similar to an all-time favorite of mine, The Kink Kontroversy. Now, the reason for this trivial personal tidbit is to demonstrate two things: Firstly, that album reviews can be self-indulgent; and secondly, that Sleater-Kinney were not overtly proselytizing the “radical” principles of concurrent feminist rock artists. They addressed the record industry’s deeply patriarchal past and present in a way that blatantly contrasted an increasingly irrelevant generation (who grew up on that cheeky, boys-will-be-boys attitude of mod rockers) with what may be considered the zeitgeist of Pacific Northwest subculture. The ’90s were the days of localized social change on an artistic front, and we need not look further than the patchy progress made by young groups of musicians in Seattle, Olympia, and DC to see that all-female bands were most critical elements of such change.
The band’s newest album, No Cities To Love, does not mark a radical change from the Sleater-Kinney we knew in the years leading to their hiatus. That intensely assertive vibrato of Corin Tucker’s voice from their last studio effort, The Woods (2005), still rips through their newer catalog. And at the epicenter of this latest album sits their comeback’s crowning achievement, “A New Wave,” where Tucker and Carrie Brownstein sing as one: It’s not a new wave, it’s just you and me. Here Brownstein’s offerings of psychedelic licks and distorted guitar scrapes are perhaps more in your face than on any S-K album to date; though the whole is still driven by Janet Weiss’s rhythmic prowess on the drums (the sort of framework that frees up space for eccentric, offbeat harmonics).
The lyrics are seemingly less intimate, but typically dark and solemn—the album’s ending track, “Fade,” is eerily reminiscent of their elegiac closer “Jenny” from Dig Me Out, and certainly some of Patti Smith’s best. Tucker sheds some light on the cause of the band’s hiatus in “Hey Darling,” singing about the inevitable trials of perpetual judgment that popular artists face under the haunting scrutiny of celebrity culture (or “fame’s mediocrity”) in the modern age: How could you steal the thing I love and keep it from me just out of touch. You’d be hard-pressed to find a fan of S-K who would not be able to understand the emotional strain of writing and performing music so deeply personal that it blurs the line between individual expression and a cultish expectation. In fact, the dramatic, operatic quality of Sleater-Kinney’s “Fade” seems to draw them more in the parodic direction of Queen’s wailing style of hard rock (not to mention Tucker’s spot-on Geddy Lee falsetto) and even toward Sabbathian sludge. Tucker chants over Brownstein’s meandering guitar line: Hit your mark, push the walls, stretch the stage / Oh, what a price that we paid / My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end. The mournful closing track reveals the band’s journey is far from over—though they’re conspicuously “maturing” away from their riot grrrl past—and that all at once a brand new chapter of S-K’s career has begun.
You can find the album for purchase at Sub Pop and pretty much everywhere else.