What’s most impressive about No Cities to Love is that it’s a pretty good Sleater-Kinney album. It’s not a desperation-fueled statement of purpose, it’s not a classic, and it doesn’t represent a major sonic departure for the group. Really, there’s no proof that it came out a decade after their last album. It could have been released 18 months after One Beat and no one would have batted an eye.
And it just doesn’t sound like a reunion album. It sounds like the work of three professionals who are able to separate themselves from the reunion narrative construct and its resulting anxieties that inevitably devolve into legacy panic. The album suggests but stops short of insisting they could make a dozen more like it with relative ease.
But Sleater-Kinney is a rock band, and evaluating a rock band on studio output alone is foolishness. You have to factor in what happened before the album and how it gets sold on stage, and how it mutates there. Ten years for a rock band constitutes an epoch. A lot happened in the interim that could have changed the narrative or the band’s mission. Carrie Brownstein, of course, went and got herself famous. And Corin Tucker made two low-key solo records that were better than anybody let on and suggested she was content with a second career as a singer-songwriter.
It’s a testament to the band’s professionalism that Friday night’s show at the Hollywood Palladium was any good. Hollywood is one of the worst places in the world to see a rock band on a comeback tour. The crowds are terrible. They’re burned out from over-stimulation. They’ve been to Coachella and they’ve been exposed to a grotesque overabundance of bands they’d never think to see in a club. And worst case scenario, they’re at a concert just to do a relevant thing in Hollywood on a Friday night, take a few pictures, go on Twitter, say they spotted, you know, Aimee Mann or Johnny Depp, prove they were there.
This crowd was no different. There were about four thousand people there, and many were half-participating, like they were watching the show on a $40 streaming service. It would be a sufficient excuse for any band to justify a tired or routine show. But Sleater-Kinney willed their way out of it by performing like a band that could be playing the Los Angeles Coliseum and simply decided against it for ideological reasons.
What’s striking about Sleater-Kinney in 2015 is what a visually iconic band they have become in a post-YouTube era, which they didn’t have to deal with in their original run. In an era where every touring band of requisite stature has an hour or two of pro-shot concert footage available the morning after it’s performed, they’ve figured out exactly how a rock band should move and look on stage. The songs haven’t changed in ten years, and to hear a live recording of a contemporary show is to hear a band that stayed practiced and didn’t mess with well-traveled arrangements. But to see the band is to see three people (four sometimes, if you count touring utility player Katie Larkin) who have mastered the art of rock and roll spectacle without retreating into gimmicks.
A lot of this comes from Carrie Brownstein, who has figured out precisely how to simulate anarchy without missing any cues. She knows how to get the most theatrical potential possible out of a song. She knows exactly how to work with the space of the stage and the lighting. She’s hyper-aware of the visual weight to being a lead guitarist in 2015, where there might be 400 iPhones pointed at you in any given instant. She has become totally fearless on stage, and can deploy enormous, exaggerated classic rock gestures, moves and poses without apologizing for them or deconstructing them. While this could occasionally come off as too big in Wild Flag, which played much smaller rooms, in a four-thousand capacity theater it kills.
Corin Tucker, meanwhile, remains one of the most earnest and soulful singers in rock. Where Brownstein sings like she’s imagining a crowd of one hundred thousand, Tucker sings like she’s imagining a crowd of zero.
There’s a lack of self-consciousness to her singing that feels startlingly private regardless of its volume. When she opens up and sings a huge chorus from her gut, it’s not like she’s headlining at the Palladium, it’s like she’s singing along with the radio on a long drive. It’s the best kind of cathartic singing: the kind that doesn’t seem to require an audience.
And Janet Weiss goes hard, there’s not a Sleater-Kinney review in the world that doesn’t mention this, but what’s seldom said is that she doesn’t turn it off. She goes hard on every single song, she kills every last song in the set, and it utterly rewires the structure of once-ethereal numbers like “Get Up,” which now have so much low-end kick that you at once understand why they don’t need a bass player.
But the big revelation of the night was not the new songs, which were naturally more swaggering than they were in studio, or the newly decadent lighting design, or the self-awareness about new media culture, but the tracks from The Woods. It remains the one outlier in their discography, as it was produced by David Fridmann, who didn’t seem to trust the band. The album has an artificial, brickwalled loudness that detracts from the band’s perceived agency over the finished product. It feels like a Sleater-Kinney album featuring David Fridmann.
At the Palladium, they took those songs back. They played six tracks off the album, including the herculean “Let’s Call It Love,” and without fail they pulled off the id-driven hugeness that Fridmann needlessly staged by producing them like they were trying to headline a hard rock festival. On stage, those songs are openly confrontational and leave you breathless without pretense; they kick you in the gut and visibly push the endurance of every member of the band. Fridmann produced them like he had to compensate for something that was missing, but that night it was clear nothing was missing. Sleater-Kinney remains a band that knows there’s nothing wrong with grandiosity. They don’t need to fake it.
Author’s note: all photos were taken from the crowd with a point and click, because sometimes getting photography clearance ruins things.
Follow Kaleb on twitter at @kalebhorton