Long-anticipated return albums are rarely as satisfying as My Bloody Valentine’s m b v or ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but if anything is a good bet to pick up right where a long-dormant band has left off, it is a new record from Sleater-Kinney. It has only been a single decade since the trio’s last release, The Woods, and since then, Carrie Brownstein has still managed to impress with her post-SK hiatus release (with SK drummer Janet Weiss in tow) as Wild Flag.
Coming into No Cities to Love, it is Corin Tucker, and her necessary chemistry with Brownstein, that is up in the air. And, on the record, it is so comforting and natural to hear the two playing together. Indeed, on Sleater-Kinney’s eighth album, the band sounds as vital, composed and necessary as ever. In just 10 songs and a little over 30 minutes, Sleater-Kinney does so much more than revive an old band. They craft an argument for having improved in its absence.
No Cities to Love doesn’t take its time in announcing its presence. “Price Tag” only allows the solo guitar tip-toeing to last but a few seconds before the band joins in, reveling in the truth that Sleater-Kinney’s parts are greater as a whole. As assured as Tucker’s vocals are on the verse of the opener, or as Brownstein’s lead matches Tucker’s strength on “A New Wave,” the moments of pure bliss come from hearing the two weave around each other, both with their guitars and their voices, like a tight braid you’d have to cut off at the base to ever unravel.
It is fortunate for the listener that the band coalesces often on this album. The title track, one of the strongest individual songs of their career, finds Brownstein and Tucker harmonizing effortlessly, while “No Anthems,” a title that obviously didn’t get the memo from the rest of the anthem-heavy album, suppresses the need to crowd-please, and lets Tucker’s snarl ping-pong with Brownstein’s expressive noodling. In 10 songs, Sleater-Kinney shows a range that would be hoped for (even with a surprising stoner-rock turn on closer “Fade”), without demonstrating the struggle that might be expected of a band coming off a 10-year absence.
“It seems to me that the only thing that comes from fame is mediocrity,” sings Brownstein on the album’s penultimate number, “Hey Darling,” one of the most poppy moments on the album. The irony is that No Cities to Love will undoubtably be the most heard album in Sleater-Kinney’s career, with the band’s disappearance from the spotlight (plus, the ascent of Brownstein via Portlandia to the spotlight of indie culture in a way that would have never been possible in the band alone) a positive to the long-term success of Sleater-Kinney. Famous or not-famous, Sleater-Kinney have never been mediocre. And if No Cities to Love is merely proof that the trio still has it in them to make a great album together, it wasn’t needed. We knew.
But it is still nice to be reminded.