After nine years away, the punk innovators come back on a mission of righteous fury
"I've grown afraid of everything that I love," Carrie Brownstein yelps in "No Cities to Love," from Sleater-Kinney's excellent new album of the same name. She's not the first punk rocker to get the jitters when it comes to adulthood. But Sleater-Kinney steamroll over all possible doubts on No Cities. They called it quits in 2006, after a 12-year run as America's fiercest punk band. Judging by the urgent passion and bloodlust all over this album, they're ready to reclaim the title.
Sleater-Kinney recorded No Cities last year on the sly, springing it on the world as a surprise. Once you get over your shock that this album exists, it comes on like one of their toughest ever – 10 songs in 33 minutes, not a dud in the bunch, all surging in uptempo stomp-down-the-door mode. There's more low-end thud to their sound than before. The whole album crackles with the palpable excitement of three rock lifers in a room, eager to see what happens when they plug in and let it rip.
You can hear that in a rave-up like "Surface Envy" – Brownstein's guitar, Corin Tucker's wail and Janet Weiss' adrenaline-animal drums kick with the raunch of early AC/DC and the lilt of New Order. They join their voices for a rowdy chorus that doubles as a manifesto: "We win, we lose/Only together do we break the rules."
Like many great bands, Sleater-Kinney started making noise in the Pacific Northwest riot-grrrl explosion of the early Nineties. Yet they ended up pushing that decade's open possibilities further than anyone else. Over seven albums, Sleater-Kinney kept tinkering with their sound, throwing new elements into the mix – Tucker discovered the blues, which was weird, while Brownstein discovered 20-minute guitar solos, which was even weirder. Even after they broke up, they never had a chance to get rusty, because they kept cranking out intense music – Brownstein and Weiss formed Wild Flag, and Tucker started her own band. And, oh yeah, the biggest twist of all – Brownstein became an unlikely comedy star in Portlandia, the Lily Tomlin of the artisanal-shoelace scene.
There are plenty of surprises all over No Cities to Love. The martial chant of "Bury Our Friends" oddly evokes Franz Ferdinand, and "No Anthems" rides the organ buzz of "Highway Star"-era Deep Purple. And "Hey Darling" nicks a hook from Lita Ford's feminist hair-metal classic "Kiss Me Deadly" – now that's ecumenical. Though Sleater-Kinney always had a way with wistful ballads (from 1997's "Buy Her Candy" to 2005's "Modern Girl"), there's none of that here. It's all raw power.
The break that Sleater-Kinney are returning from isn't as important as what they're returning to: a world full of Sleater-Kinneys. Every town in America has a punk band or two working the turf these three opened up, bands that would be unthinkable without their precedent. The most exciting thing about No Cities is that Sleater-Kinney are one of those bands again – they sound as hungry, as unsettled, as restless as any of the rookies on their jock. After a career of breaking the rules, they're back to break a few more.