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It's a rare occurrence that a band finishes off with their best album, but ten years ago that's exactly what Sleater-Kinney did with 2005's opus The Woods. The hiatus still seems like a bit of a mystery, as the band cited no bad blood or fatigue, but just a desire to try other things. It seemed strange to for them not to want to share their peak powers of creativity together, or maybe they felt they'd done that with The Woods. Whatever happened, it seemed unlikely that three women so obviously meant to be together would stay apart forever, or at least that's what fans believed. Now, ten years later, they're fulfilling that wishful prophecy with No Cities To Love.
Those that have been waiting patiently for a new Sleater-Kinney album (a group which has swollen considerably in size over the 10 year break) might be expecting to go into No Cities To Love picking up right where The Woods left off; with the band trying to expand outwards and outdo themselves on every front possible. However, a mere look at the track lengths on their new offering will tell you that this is not an attempt at something even grander; none of the 10 new songs extend beyond the 4 minute mark. Rather than stretch themselves to breaking point as they did on their last, No Cities To Love finds the trio facing inwards, rocking out in a tight space, writing short and punchy punk songs and just generally enjoying bouncing off each other once more.
This rediscovered mutual infatuation is rife in the lyrics, such as the mission statement chorus of 'Surface Envy': "we win, we lose, only together do we break the rules," but the most obvious statement of their combined prowess is all through the instrumentation. In the years off Carrie Brownstein may have focused more on her acting, but be assured that she has not lost a single inch in her guitar playing. She puts in a series of virtuosic efforts here, and her comrades are more than keeping pace, just like the old days. "We speak in circles, we dance in code" sings Corin Tucker on 'Bury Our Friends', alluding to the seemingly psychic connection between the trio, and the song's simple-yet-mesmerising guitar and rhythm interplay seems as if it could only have been made by non-verbal communication. 'A New Wave' accentuates all of Sleater-Kinney's strengths by having some of the album's most aggressive guitar squall all through its verses, then flipping itself inside out to become a delightfully breezy chorus which finds Brownstein and Tucker harmonising nicely. The song then flips back outwards again and ends with a fade-out of them all giving their respective instruments a good work out. Sleater-Kinney are just plain having fun here.
The inventive interplay throughout is thrilling, but the pop element shouldn't be underestimated either. A song like 'No Anthems' could be a perfectly catchy pop-punk song, but it's something entirely other with Brownstein sounding like she's brought her guitar into horrifying life and is wrestling it into check, while Janet Weiss on drums gallops alongside propping her up and not missing an instant. The album's title track delivers a powerful hook and will likely knock listeners out on their first round. 'Gimme Love' would be a mere sketch of a song in less capable hands, but Brownstein's python-like guitar wrapping around Weiss's bulletproof percussion, while Tucker gives a gale force vocal performance makes it a monolithic final product that's made for high speed summer driving.
If people are coming to No Cities To Love expecting a continuation of The Woods then they'll be disappointed; but if they truly believed that's what Sleater-Kinney would do after 10 years then they don't understand them at all. Brownstein recently said in an interview with Paste that they wanted to write this without looking back, and that "it should sound urgent and as necessary as if [they] had just started as a band." No Cities To Love certainly sounds urgent and necessary, but there's no way they sound like a band that's just started: they're just too good.
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