Sleater-Kinney return after a decade’s hiatus with the best album of their career.
When a band reforms after a long layoff, there’s always a bit of trepidation. For every example of a successful reunion that results in an album that’s a welcome addition to a band’s canon, such as Big Country’s “The Journey” or Toad The Wet Sprocket’s “New Constellation”, both from 2013, there are many more examples where the band was obviously unable to catch the previous magic and frankly embarrasses themselves.
Rarest of all is the case where a reunited band creates the best work of their career, which is exactly what Sleater-Kinney have done with their outstanding new album “No Cities To Love” on Sub Pop. “No Cities” is the most assured, confident and accessible album of their career, and may stand as a career-defining work for this three-piece from the Pacific Northwest.
Background: Sleater-Kinney was the most proficient and well-known band to come out of the 1990s seminal “Riot Grrrl” movement. “Riot Grrrl” was a broad label applied to a group of post-grunge female alternative bands, primarily based out of the Seattle scene such as Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Riot Grrrl was as much a political movement as a musical one, featuring a feminist political stance and a DIY aesthetic.
Sleater-Kinney (named after an Interstate exit near Lacey, Washington where the band practiced) consists of Corin Tucker (vocals and guitars), Carrie Brownstein (guitars and vocals) and Janet Weiss (drums). Sleater-Kinney released seven well-regarded albums between 1995 and 2005 starting with an eponymous debut in 1995 and ending with “The Woods” in 2005. After breaking up, Tucker continued to play with various bands, and Brownstein/Weiss went on to form a band called Wild Flag that released a well-reviewed album in 2010. Of course, the most visible project from any of the members has been Brownstein’s turn as half of the creative team behind the satirical “Portlandia” TV series with her partner Fred Armisen.
Always a critical favorite, their influence was disproportionate to their commercial success, with their highest charting album being “The Woods” at number 80 on the US charts. However, their influence was felt throughout the indie/alternative scene throughout their career, influencing bands from L7 and Hole to No Doubt. Sleater-Kinney featured the interplay between Tucker’s dramatic vocals, variously shouted, yelped and sung at top of her range reminiscent of PJ Harvey, over Brownstein’s angular, skittering and alternately heavy and sludgy guitar (and occasional vocals) and anchored by Weiss’s solid and metronomic drums.
I admit I was slow in climbing on the bandwagon. From the start, I recognized what they were attempting to achieve, agreed that they were hitting their mark, and that what they were doing had value. Truthfully, though, although I liked individual songs from them I never really clicked on an entire album from them until their fifth album “All Hands On The Bad One” from 2000. I suppose that I liked the idea of early Sleater-Kinney better than the actual thing until I finally caught up to what they were (and now are again) doing.
I saw them live once, and they were just a crashing wall of sound. I only really remember two things: Janet Weiss bashing the drums like a maniac, beating them as though they’d crashed her car, and the way that Brownstein/Tucker traded off lead guitar licks, and without a bass player in the band one of them (usually Tucker) would occasionally play bass lines on the guitar. I liked that – it’s always good to remind bass players that they are optional. Here’s a linked overview that gives you some of the history if you’re unfamiliar with them:
Which brings us to “No Cities To Love”. This album is a 33-minute, 10-song revelation, if not revolution, full of ferocious and inventive riffs, licks and melodies. The guitar tones draw as much from Gang Of Four, Wire, and Television as they do anything from 90s or 00s alternative. The guitars can veer from Sabbath-esque sludge to post-millenial Futureheads/Editors within a single song, reaching all the way to pre-synth Devo or early B-52s on occasion. Tucker’s (and occasionally Brownstein’s) quasi-operatic vocal prowess is undiminished, Weiss’s drumming is outstanding, with lots of quirky polyrhythmic touches to complement her jackhammer style.
The lyrics show a mature self-awareness and multiple shadings whether discussing domestic life and the struggles to make ends meet – and also maybe also the price of fame – (“Price Tag”) or “Fangless”’s kissoff to an unnamed person that also hints at regrets for their past (“Where’s the evidence, the scars, the dents That I was ever here?”). Perhaps the most curious lyric is on the title track. Given the identity that the band has with the Pacific Northwest, it’s strange to hear them sing “There are no cities, no cities to love; it’s not the city, it’s the weather we love!” The implication is that all cities are the same, it’s only the geography that matters, but given how specifically they have been tied to Seattle in the past and of course now Portland due to Portlandia, I don’t quite get the lyric.
But I digress.
The album leads off with “Price Tag” which sets the tone for the full album, full of spiky, quirky and occasionally atonal guitar lines, straining vocals and a bludgeoning drumline. “Fangless” is built around a classic S-K swirling guitar figure. “Surface Envy” (featured live on their recent Conan O’Brien performance) has demented guitar accents that squonk and squeal and a descending guitar line over a classic alternative sing-along chorus.
“No Cities To Love” is perhaps the most memorable song on the album. Over a propulsive beat and bass-line played on guitar and another bouncy, spiky guitar riff, the song has a great bridge and chorus that is instantly memorable and will have you humming it all week. “A New Wave” and “No Anthems” complete a strong three-song mini manifesto at the center of the album. Brownstein sings the galloping beat of “A New Wave” with punky enthusiasm “It’s not a new wave it’s just you and me….invent our own kind of obscurity” and it’s clear that although she’s become best known as a comic actor on Portlandia she can still bring the noise.
“No Anthems” is a bit of misnomer; the bridge/chorus are as anthemic in their own way as anything they’ve ever done. “Bury Our Friends” is another winner. Spitting furious lyrics over insistent guitar lines, it’s a call to action, a manifesto that rings as true as anything they’ve ever done while lamenting the passage of “our own gilded age”.
The album runs out of breath a little bit in the last two songs, but with the first eight songs being as enjoyable as they are, “No Cities To Love” is already a candidate for rock album of the year. Welcome back, ladies, we missed you. Download: “Price Tag”, “No Cities To Love” Score: 9 Suns out of 10.
Here they are doing “A New Wave” on Letterman:
If you live anywhere near DC and haven’t been to a Tone show… well, there is no excuse. They are the awesome and ever evolving guitar rock ensemble that may have started the shoegaze genre. I caught their first show ever at the old 9:30 club due to my friend Geordie being in the band. They had the wall-of-guitars droning sound of their namesake going even then, but it was nothing compared to the sonic complexity and pounding rhythms of the current Tone. Tonight’s set was amazing with lots of new material and rearranged older songs. Go see their next show at Comet Ping Pong on Feb 21. That’s an order!
As is true with all shows, you should see the opening acts. I can’t say how many times the opening band has blown my mind or how many have just blown. Either way it is worth the effort. What’s the worst that can happen – they suck and you are forced to have a beer in the back room? Still worth it.
Tonight’s openers were Cryptodira from Long Island and Technicians from DC. Cryptodira: sorry guys, but your attempt to meld Math Rock with Metal was not a success. Pick a genre, because those two do not mix. Technicians: Not bad. Math Rock again, a bit on the heavy side. This may have been on purpose because of the other bands on the bill tonight. The lighter songs on their web site sounded better to me, but may not have been as well received tonight..
The headliner tonight was Wings Denied. I stayed for a few of their songs, but was not impressed. They claim to be prog rockers, but just sounded like a metal band to me. Lead singer kept swinging on an overhead pipe that looked like it might be a gas pipe. I’m all for stagecraft and such, but they weren’t good enough to risk exploding for.
Weirdness on the bass guitars tonight. Wings Denied had a five string bass (unusual). Cryptodira had a six string bass (never seen that before). The Technicians’ bass guitar had LED lights shining out of the frets – what’s up with that? Of course the best bass player was Tone’s: no gimmicks required.
If you care at all about music, go to a live show. In almost every case the live show is better than the recording. The few exceptions are bands you don’t like anyway. In today’s music business the live shows are the only way most bands can make any significant money to keep playing. Streaming, iTunes, etc pay so little that you might as well be stealing the music. While you’re there, buy the band’s CD/LP directly from them. If you buy their CD for $10 at the show, they get $10. Buy it on Amazon and they’ll get $1 at most. Get out of the house! See a show! They have beer at the club!
So I was arguing with an old coot not too long ago on a message board, a guy who claimed he’d lived through the punk explosion of the 70s, which apparently made him a punk Yoda of sorts in his own mind. I came up around the tail end of all that stuff, so I guess I’m at the very least a pseudo-coot, but far from a yoda of any sort.
Anyway, the coot made some sort of comment about an artist “not being punk,” which prompted the age-old question, “What IS punk?” My coot foe was talking about Joe Strummer in particular, whining about how “sad” it was to see the man in his later years having to promote himself and one of his shows on a boardwalk in Atlantic City, as chronicled in the amazing film about Strummer, “Let’s Rock Again.” To this guy, Strummer had betrayed what “punk” was all about; he’d stayed in the game too long, stayed past his prime, should’ve just burned out and disappeared after “Combat Rock” instead of tarnishing his legacy by, at nearly 50, creating his own fliers for shows and basically becoming a carnival barker trying to get people to show up at a small club to see his new musical project. This, from a guy who once rocked Shea Stadium with a band once called “the only band that mattered.”
Before I get to the gist of my response to this grizzled hack, let me throw out one of my favorite phrases for your consideration:
“The revolution becomes the institution.”
I don’t know who coined the phrase, but it’s one that’s stuck with me for many years. I think the first time I heard it, in fact, was in an interview with Bono back in the 80s. The idea is, most revolutions start with grandiose and justified ideals of freedom, justice, fairness, overturning a corrupt system, etc. And then, once the new group takes power, it’s … “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
That’s what happened with punk. That’s what this so-called “punk connoisseur” didn’t grasp, even after all these years.
We can all argue where the genesis of punk started, but let’s go the safe route and cite the godfathers, the Sex Pistols. Here’s their first appearance on U.K. television.
Can you imagine seeing this come bashing through your television after a performance of “Muskrat Love” by Captain and Tennille?
Here was the vanguard of the revolution, and there was no one better equipped to lead it than Johnny Rotten. He was brilliant, he was biting, he was a leader others rallied behind, specifically other bands like … The Clash.
In fact, when Strummer first heard the Pistols, he decided to quit his current band immediately. THIS was the musical movement he wanted to be a part of. Weeks later, The Clash was ready to blaze their own trail.
Now, I’m not going to turn this into a punk history lesson, as that’s not the overall point of this piece, and most of this is common knowledge anyway, so pardon this brief contextualization of a much more multi-faceted subject as I try to get to that point.
Basically, bands like the Pistols and the Clash formed out of pure, noble motives: they were tired of being spoon-fed corporate-drenched music and culture, they were sick of the bloated excess of legacy acts like the Stones or Zeppelin who were considered almost akin to gods. They were tired of feeling that if they weren’t virtuosos with an instrument, they had no business being on a stage and writing songs. Punk was the ultimate DIY manifestation. These young bands had no corporate support in the beginning. Whatever metaphorical hills they would take, they had to take by themselves. The passion of this movement took communities by storm, inspiring others of like minds to get up and do something. It launched a thousand musical ships, most of which sunk quickly, but a few of which weathered the storm.
But then, something happened … “the revolution became the institution.” Suddenly a movement that was all about being true to yourself, expressing yourself in the way you wanted to, dressing how you wanted to, playing the music that moved you, etc., became yet another rigid set of rules to be defined by.
“Do THIS, and you are punk.”
“Look like THIS, and you are punk.”
Here’s a pretty interesting piece from 1979 talking about the “fall” of punk. Some interesting comments from the “old guard” the punk revolution sought to dethrone, as well as a telling comment from John Lydon saying he “refused to be a pantomime or a puppet,” which contributed to the breakup of the Pistols and his own disillusionment.
By 1979, the punk “institution” was firmly in place. Big labels swooped in, signed up anything with a safety pin in its nose, anything that sought to “shock” solely for shock’s sake. Sure, a lot of great music still refused to fall through the sifter, but much of it was now pre-packaged, fabricated, forced, the very thing punk was initially intent on destroying.
The revolution was the institution.
People like John Lydon thumbed their noses at what was now expected of them. Lydon went on to confuse fans by forming another revolutionary band, Pil, which sounded nothing like the Pistols. The Clash were also never interested in confining themselves to the now expected punk package, something they proved when releasing one of the greatest albums of all time: “London Calling.” It featured a song called “Wrong ‘Em, Boyo” that stunned some fans who only wanted the full guns blazing, “punk” version of the band.
“How dare they use a saxophone on this song? That’s not punk!”
The revolution had … you know. (I hate saxophones, by the way, but that’s beside the point.)
Sadly, the band eventually imploded, but Mick Jones and Joe Strummer continued creating unique, often revolutionary (especially int the case of Jones’ B.A.D. project) stuff.
But for many, especially young people growing up long after the initial fires of punk were sparked,the word “punk” was now part of the lexicon. It immediately conjured predictable images of crazy hair, spikes, leather … of crazy, shock-driven behavior. In short, it was another easily-classifiable category to put someone in, to judge someone by.
But in my estimation, and what I think held true for many of the pioneers of this movement, punk was not defined by anything: age, clothes, musical styles. At it’s heart, it meant one thing and one thing only: being true to yourself. Whatever form that took. Whatever age that realization found you.
A bloated Rotten battles horrible camera work to explain in 2011.
And that brings us back full circle, to the coot fight. And I guess now’s as good a time as any to show the footage in question. In 2002, Joe Strummer had a new band, The Mescaleros. They released three albums, each one better than the last, before Joe’s untimely death. But there was no big label support behind them, no corporate arm. They were on a relatively small label, and they had to promote themselves when the need arose.
And Joe Strummer, now nearly 50 years old, had no problem whatsoever doing just that, as this video shows:
So yeah, the initial knee-jerk reaction is not unexpected: “Wow, what happened to this once great icon? Look at him, out on a boardwalk, making up his own fliers and handing them out to people personally, most of whom don’t know who he is. How pathetic. How sad.”
How lazy to think that way.
Here’s a man doing exactly what he did as a young person trying to promote his new band The Clash. Here’s a man who loves his music, loves what he does, loves his band, ego-less, willing to do what it takes to spread the word about his art. Here’s a man totally comfortable in his own skin, making EXACTLY the music he wanted to make with the people he wanted to make it with. Here’s a man DOING WHAT HE LOVED, on his own terms, refusing to give a crap about what some dumb kid or aging hipster thought was or wasn’t “punk.”
So, to that old coot, Joe Strummer chortles at you from the grave. Then ignores you. From the grave.
THIS is punk.
In fact, THIS is as punk as it gets.
Not content with giving us the standout album of 2014, St Vincent has treated us to a new single in the first month of the new year.
Often described as avant garde (a term I don’t like as it suggests ‘art for art’s sake’) I would describe St Vincent’s music more as a sort of ‘warped pop’ and I think that description fits Bad Believer more than most.
An exhilarating mix of frantic beats and trademark fuzzy guitar and synth, the song wastes no time in getting straight into the chorus. And it’s all over in 3 minutes. There’s still time for a breakdown though, containing a sound I can only describe as a Wurlitzer organ that strangely doesn’t sound out of place.
Maybe a leftover from last year’s album which didn’t quite fit, but a welcome one all the same.
In the madcap world of rockabilly, there has always been a question about who the king of the pickers should be.
(For argumentative purposes, we’re going to leave the immortal ones out of this discussion. Guys like Scotty Moore, Luther Perkins, or Duane Eddy are not the kings but the Gods of twang and that’s that. Moving along…..)
I have always believed that the two reigning champeens of rockabilly guitar have spent far too much time away from each other and need to be placed in a direct head-to-head pickoff to prove once and for all who should wear the championship belt with the Gretsch and Bigsby logos on it, and have the blessings of Bettie Paige thrust upon them. Place your bets and tighten your seatbelts. It’s about to get rough.
The Reigning Champ – Brian Setzer
Brian cut his teeth and inked his tattoos in NYC and the UK with the Stray Cats, was groomed by none other than the great Dave Edmunds himself, and took the stale but hip concept of big band music and made it revved up and cool, like a daddy-o. He is able to be smooth on tunes like “Sleepwalk” but can rev up the rebellion with tunes like “Switchblade 327” Show ’em what ya Got!
The Upstart Contender – Jim “Reverend Horton” Heath
Jim reigns from the dusty back-road honky-tonks of Texas. He grew up playing the bar circuits and got his name by an old player who felt he deserved the monikor of a righteous man. After landing in Austin, he made his first albums with none other than Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers producing him and sending off into a haze of feedback, cigar smoke, and cheap bourbon lullabies. The smoothness is dark, musky, seductive, and ominous at times (as seen in “The Devil’s Chasing Me”), and his razor licks in “Psychobilly Freakout” will cut you up like a Bowie Knife fight.
Soooo…..the King! The Contender! The shootout!
Place your bets! Cast your votes! Tote that barge! Lift that bail……IT’S A……IT’S A……..SHOOTOUT…..WHO YA GOT?!?
Deep Purple has had eight different “marks” (i.e. different line-ups), and everybody will have their own favourite. The very first line-up is likely the most overlooked one, but many still have a big soft spot for Deep Purple “mark 1”, and I’m definitely one of them. Even though I firmly prefer the albums with Ian Gillan and David Coverdale behind the microphone, the three albums the band made with Rod Evans (vocals) and Nick Simper (bass) have a naïve and innocent charm, as well as a wonderful mesh of 60s hard rock sensibilities with symphonic overtones, that often draw me back to them.
In late 1969, Evans and Simper were both fired from Purple to make room for Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, to support a new, harder-edged musical direction. If you wondered what Rod Evans did next, read on.
After leaving Purple, Evans recorded a solo single, but even before it was released he had joined forces with Lee Dorman (bass) and Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt (guitar) whose band Iron Butterfly had just imploded. They quickly recruited Bobby Caldwell (drums) from Johnny Winter’s band. The classic version of Captain Beyond was complete.
Captain Beyond played a mix of hard, blues-based rock which at times bordered on 70s-style heavy metal, other times leaning more towards progressive rock with time signature changes and virtouso instrumentation. What set them apart was their tendency to incorporate certain moods, with several calmer, athmospheric melodic sections. Those who liked what the Evans-led version of Deep Purple did may like Captain Beyond well, because the bands were not exactly miles apart. They were based in Los Angeles, and had several high-profile fans – including Duane Allman, and it was on his recommendation that the band were signed to Capricorn Records.
The first album was simply called Captain Beyond, and was released in July 1972.
Side 1 contains a collection of independent songs, while side 2 is one long piece with songs loosely connected (not too dissimilar to the Beatles’ famous “Abbey Road suite”) and should ideally be listened to as a complete, singular piece.
The album opener, Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air) showcases the band’s typic blend of atmosphere and hard rock:
The track Raging River of Fear is a great showcase for the mighty hard rock groove that the band could whip up:
Armworth is one of the shorter songs on the album, and I must admit to having a big weakness for the wonderful harmonizing guitar leads you hear in the opening section:
The second album, Sufficiently Breathless, was released in the fall of 1973.
This turned out to be a very difficult album for the band, and even though they still kept going for a while after its release, the recording sessions were in reality the beginning of the end for the classic line-up of Captain Beyond. The record label started putting a somewhat bizarre pressure on the band to move towards a “southern rock”-type sound. The label had just had a gigantic hit with the Allman Brothers‘ “Eat A Peach” the year prior, and wanted Captain Beyond to capitalize. The band, to their credit, largely resisted, but it created unneeded pressure on the guys. The band had also switched drummers prior to the recordings, but were pressured by the producer to switch again midway through the album. The studio also turned out to be sub-standard, which gave them all kinds of technical problems. All in all this wasn’t a happy time, and the band members started taking their frustrations out on each other. Eventually it got to be enough for Rod Evans, who went back to England in the middle of the sessions. He was eventually coaxed into returning to add the remaining vocal tracks. Amazingly, given the challenges, the resulting album was still pretty good, but definitely a step down from the debut.
The song Evil Men is amongst the better ones from the second album, and one of classic rock’s great lost tunes in my opinion:
Despite the difficult recording sessions, the band stuck together throughout 1973, when they toured the US extensively. This resulted in a lot of good shows and the tour generally went well, despite limited promotion of the album and an ice cool relationship with the label at this point. At the end of the year, with all commitments fulfilled, Rod Evans left the band again – this time for good.
Several years later, a new version of the band appeared with their third and final album – 1977’s Dawn Explosion.
This album was definitely made to be played on US radio, with strong AOR/melodic rock sensibilities. Willy Daffern was the new vocalist, and the song Breath of Fire is a good example of how the band sounded with him:
In any case, the early albums are the key ones for Captain Beyond, and they were a great live act. Given that, what better way to round off this epistel than with a great clip of Captain Beyond live in Montereux (Switzerland) in September 1971 – just a few months before Rod Evans old bandmates came to town and created rock history with Smoke On the Water. But never mind that – as we’ll see, Rod Evans has the biggest cow bell of them all.
I’m generally not a fan of collaborations; they usually mean at least one person has run out of ideas, but I do like an orchestral collaboration and this is one of the best.
Not a new song as such, but a new live version, performed with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Taken from an album released at the end of last year, this track has recently been released as a single, if the concept of a single still exists. As this is my first attempt at a review I’ve gone for a single, rather than a whole album – I don’t want to run before I can walk.
To the song then – it opens with a short intro from the singer, telling us of his propensity for swearing, more of which shortly. Starting off with a solo piano and quickly joined by smooth bass and beautiful strings, it has a big ballad feel. Which probably makes it the only ballad to contain the word “motherf***er”. If not, then it is most definitely the only ballad to contain the line “I wonder who they’ll get to play me, maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse.” An immediately funny (to me at least) but thought provoking line.
So obviously not a ballad, unless ballads are meant to be cynical and arrogant. To be honest I wasn’t a huge fan of the studio version of this song; the music sort of matched the arrogance and cynicism, but I think it actually comes across better against the orchestral production. John Grant has a great voice which is well suited to an orchestral backing, and I hope he continues down this road in future, as it works incredibly well.
Wow…..where do I begin about Mother Maybelle Carter? To come so far from the remotest backwoods of Clinch Mountain, WV (I’m told they had to walk towards town to go hunting), and begin a revolutionary musical style that still resonates across the world today is a feat that will most likely never be witnessed again. One of my colleagues noted in a previous post about Wanda Jackson that nothing is quite as sexy as a woman with a guitar. If Wanda Jackson was sexy, then Mother Maybelle was a picture of simple country grace.
Interesting facts about Maybelle and the Carter Family –
- None of the original Carter Family (A.P., Sara, and Maybelle) were actually related. Sara Dougherty was married to A.P., and Maybelle Addington was married to A.P.’s twin brother, Ezra “Eck” Carter.
- When the family moved to Del Rio, TX in the 1930’s to perform their radio show for station XERF, the signal strength was so strong (It was pre-FCC regulations), you could hear the music being played in the barbed wire fences a few miles away from the transmitter.
- Maybelle is given credit for discovering some unknown guitarist from Tennessee by the name of Chet Atkins. Chet used to back the family up during the Texas days.
- She was one of the main people who stood up for letting Elvis Presley perform on the Grand Ole Opry by telling them that she wouldn’t perform until he did. She also offered to run interference with distracting Bill Monroe while Elvis covered his song “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. (It turns out that Bill actually liked the way Elvis did it.)
- When Johnny Cash was battling his addiction problems, Maybelle and Eck were first on hand to help see him through the tough spots. It was later revealed by Maybelle that the main reason why she wanted to be involved wasn’t only to see Johnny through for his and June’s sake, but also to prevent a repeat of what she went through when her other daughter, Anita, had a quasi-affair with Hank Williams. With Hank’s rocky marriage that he wanted so badly to save, combined with what Hank felt to be a love so strong for Anita that should and could never be mixed in with his “I’m Hank Freakin’ Williams” addiction issues, it was the perfect storm that eventually ended up killing him. Hank lived the pain he sang about, but that’s another story for another day. (He even actually almost shot June. The bullet missed her by inches.)
Anyhoos….enough of my ceaseless prattling. I could go on for hours about the contributions of Mother Maybelle to music as we know it. (Don’t even get me started about her L-5 guitar being offered up for auction….Blasphemy. Pure. Blasphemy.)
I humbly submit this video of the Carter Family v2.0 (Mother Maybelle and her girls; Helen, Anita, and June on the autoharp) performing the bittersweet ballad of unrequited love that launched an entire style of music. The lyrics are very underrated as they really make you wish you could just hug away the pain (you can see them here), and the way the girls deliver the harmony vocals is like the feeling of witnessing some angels in calico come down from the mountain and offer up a little hope to this pale Wildwood Flower.