February 2015

Arts & Letters

Start together

By Anwen Crawford
‘No Cities To Love’: The triumphant return of Sleater-Kinney

People were cheap,” writes George Packer in his book The Unwinding: Thirty years of American decline (2013). “They’d never pass up a rock-bottom price.” Packer is writing of Walmart from the perspective of its founder, Sam Walton, whose retail empire made him the richest man in America. “When the cost comes in / It’s gonna be high,” sings Corin Tucker on the chorus of ‘Price Tag’, the opening track of No Cities To Love, a new album by Sleater-Kinney. Tucker sings the word “high” near the top of her vocal range, and she hits the note at speed, like a car accelerating off the edge of a cliff.

The Unwinding traces a slow-burning economic catastrophe from 1978 to the present by way of potted biographies, newspaper headlines, radio transcripts: fragments snatched from the ether. The music of Sleater-Kinney – a band with two vocalists whose lyrics and voices pull away from each other as often as they converge – sounds simultaneously like an emergency broadcast and a public argument about what to do in that emergency’s wake. Their songs marry the momentum of disaster to the rapturous possibility of beginning the world anew. This makes them a perfectly American band.

No Cities To Love is Sleater-Kinney’s own version of renewal, their first album in ten years. In 2006, after releasing seven albums in the space of a decade, the band broke up. “Hiatus” was the official term, though at the time it felt permanent. Sleater-Kinney’s origins lie in the early 1990s feminist punk movement known as riot grrrl; by the turn of the millennium, they were playing arena shows with Pearl Jam. Such a path might seem to represent a predictable trajectory from unyielding anti-commercialism to mainstream compromise, but the opposite was true. As the critic Greil Marcus once observed, Sleater-Kinney did not grow “out of ferocity but into it”. From the compressed anxiety of punk, their sound ballooned to the wigged-out hugeness of psychedelia – and it was terrifying. Then they were gone.

Now they are back, and the world is a different place. We live in the wake of the global financial crisis, and we are all, American or not, affected by the presidency of Barack Obama, whose election in 2008 was celebrated by many as a harbinger of political rejuvenation. These events have not escaped Sleater-Kinney. “Grew from a speck to be worshipped and crowned,” sings co-vocalist Carrie Brownstein on ‘Fangless’. “Now you’re flimsy and fangless, drooping and drowned.” Perhaps her words are not about Obama, whose presidency has disappointed and disillusioned many of his supporters, but they might as well be. Sleater-Kinney always stop just short of telling you exactly what they are talking about; ambiguity is their bulwark against didacticism.

Brownstein’s voice is of a different breed to Tucker’s: clipped and wiry, and imbued with a natural sarcasm. She sounds like no other singer in particular, but a lot like a punk singer. Tucker sounds like a blues singer: like Robert Plant, who borrowed so much from Janis Joplin, who was indebted in turn to Big Mama Thornton. Thornton sang ‘Hound Dog’ in 1952, and took it to number one on the segregated Rhythm and Blues Chart; four years later came Elvis Presley. The exhilaration of listening to Sleater-Kinney comes, in no small part, from the sense that they are redressing historical injustices. They return rock music to the mouths of women, to whom rock music equally belongs.

It is no accident that Sleater-Kinney couch their critiques in metaphors of fangs and mouths, hunger and sickness, doll parts and broken bones. “My body is a souvenir,” sings Brownstein on the title track of No Cities To Love. That the body is a site made and remade by social circumstance is a basic tenet of feminist theory. The riot grrrl movement out of which Sleater-Kinney arose took this feminism and applied it to punk rock, where it had previously surfaced in the work of 1970s female punk bands like The Slits and X-Ray Spex, before being buried in the machismo of ’80s hardcore. Hardcore was an American sub-genre of punk that, as the name suggests, exalted a particular kind of doctrinaire virility: the social exiles of punk restyled as rebel soldiers. Riot grrrl was the reaction: a movement of self-published zines, self-organised gigs and self-released cassette tapes, with a pinch of glitter and a generous handful of Hello Kitty accessories thrown in for good measure; punk rock for teenage girls, as made by teenage girls. From the volatile overlap between punk, hardcore and riot grrrl sprang Nirvana, and Sleater-Kinney are the most important American rock band since Nirvana.

Like Nirvana (or Cream, or Blue Cheer, or The Jimi Hendrix Experience), Sleater-Kinney are that emblematically masculine thing in rock music: a power trio. They have no bass player – both Tucker and Brownstein are guitarists – but you wouldn’t know it, most of the time. No rock band is ever great without a great drummer, and Sleater-Kinney have one of the best in Janet Weiss. Her technique – thundering, but never less than precise – gives Sleater-Kinney a rhythmic propulsion that must be the envy of their peers, especially the bass players. Weiss’ drumming on No Cities To Love has a disco inflection, particularly on the album’s lead single, ‘Bury Our Friends’, which is full of shuffling hi-hat patterns. “We’re sick with worry / These nerveless days,” Brownstein and Tucker sing together on the song’s chorus, in one of their rare moments of unison. “We live on dread / In our own Gilded Age.” This fusion of dread and disco is not unprecedented: the great British post-punks Gang of Four did the same on their groundbreaking debut album Entertainment! (1979), and this is not the first time that Sleater-Kinney have echoed that band.

The year before Sleater-Kinney first broke up, they released a scalding, deliberately ugly album called The Woods (2005). The heart of that record was a song called ‘Entertain’, which sounded like a recruitment anthem out of hardcore’s worst nightmares, but also like a band moving so fast that they were falling to pieces. “If all you want is entertainment / Rip me open / It’s for free,” sang Brownstein, her voice bilious with contempt. At two live shows in Australia I heard Sleater-Kinney play ‘Entertain’, and I danced so hard that I felt as if I was breaking the law. Women experience their own anger as monstrous, as a breach of discipline, because the anger of women is still a great taboo.

“I’m your monster / I’m not like you,” howled Tucker on ‘Call the Doctor’, an early Sleater-Kinney song, before reversing the charge. “I’m no monster / I’m just like you.” Sleater-Kinney’s embrace of monstrousness, as well as the band’s determination – and ability – to beat male rivals at their own game reminds me of no one so much as Nicki Minaj, whose own recent album, The Pinkprint, is an explicit attempt to set a template for female rappers, and to turn the braggadocio of hip-hop to her own purposes.

Sleater-Kinney are back, and women now dominate the charts. In this aspect, more than any other, the world has changed since they first appeared. Sleater-Kinney kept the principles of riot grrrl alive at a time when the movement had contracted to not much more than a rumour, and for a long time they sounded like voices in the wilderness. Now we have Minaj, Taylor Swift and, of course, Beyoncé, who at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards stood with her dancers in front of a giant screen upon which was displayed, without caveat or apology, one word: FEMINIST. Feminism has moved from the punk underground to the pop mainstream, which does not mean that the gains of feminism are guaranteed, or that the demands of feminists remain any less disputed. “We win, we lose,” Tucker and Brownstein sing on ‘Surface Envy’, while Weiss punctuates every beat in the bar. “Only together do we break the rules.” It is not that Sleater-Kinney are no longer necessary, but, for once, that they are not alone.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

L–R: Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. © Brian Appio
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