My Tour with Sleater-Kinney

I’m so blissfully ignorant. I’m on tour with Sleater-Kinney, covering their return to rock as a music journalist and it seems so damn quaint. They all still share a bed and hotel room together, and we laugh and joke as we get ready for their first show on their tour in Olympia, their original hometown.

I’m fitting in well for the first day. I call them “guys,” get to sleep in bed with them, and have started asking those probing questions that a serious rock journalist asks in order to build rapport in a short time. My question is “what is the fictionalized version of you like?” (Not a very good question, I admit.) Carrie answers, “just me but not real.” Corin wants to answer me later. Janet’s in the shower.

Then someone lights up a joint, which kicks off the fire alarm and everyone is heading out to the first show. Fred Armisen is with us, dressed in drag, and Corin shows me the tweet of mine she’s kept — in it, I declare my undying love to her as a rock goddess. She smiles and I wonder if I will end up kissing this woman.

Then my cousin shows  up outside the hotel with a gun in his bag, which he fires into the air, and things turn weird and I shift and suddenly… I’m awake, it’s 3am, and it was all a dream. Oh, but for a moment what a beautiful dream.

Clearly Sleater-Kinney is on my mind. They’ve just released their eighth album, No Cities to Love, after an eight year hiatus, and it was well worth the wait. But I’m not going to provide a straight-up review of their album. With a score of 90 over at Metacritic, their new album clearly has all the positive reviews it needs. No — I want to talk about why Sleater-Kinney is so damn important to rock music.

See, the thing about the new record isn’t just that it’s great, that it sounds amazing, that Sleater-Kinney is back in full form, or that everyone agrees how amazing it is. Fact is, it may be the most important rock record of the decade. Because it’s not that easy to make an Important Rock Record these days, and those who attempt it face an uphill battle against every Important Rock Record that has been recorded before. But I’m pretty sure No Cities to Love is pretty fucking important.

First and most important, the album has momentum, is momentum. Right out of the gate with the first song, the album propels itself with an immediacy most bands would die for. This isn’t just about up-tempo songs — it’s about keeping the listener engaged with back-to-back energy that keeps you hooked, won’t let your attention slip. Song after song goes by, the longest still clocking in just four minutes, and each and every one means something. From the existential and practical crisis of opener “Price Tag” to the rock anthem guitar hook of the closer “Fade,” Sleater-Kinney knows how to construct song after song of immediate, focused rock. This band knows how to rock better than just about any band out there today and this album is the proof.

The band’s secret weapon in all this is Janet Weiss, perhaps the most underrated drummer in all of rock history. Much is continually said of Carrie and Corin, and people rarely take the time to understand how critical Janet is to the band, but good God this woman can drum. It’s not enough that Janet has rock-solid tempo and seems to find all the interesting spots between the dual guitar attack from the front of the stage. For such a straight-forward rock band, there is nothing straight-forward about Weiss and her drumming. Sure, she can provide the pounding and thumping needed to propel the rocker “Surface Envy” forward. But “Fangless” has a off-center funk that most drummers could not pull off, while “Gimme Love” has a mid-phrase hiccup that many drummers would not even know what to do with. With every song Weiss brings a wealth and wide spectrum of creativity and agility that is extremely rare in today’s music. There are very few touring bands with such an amazing backbeat and yet she gets no glory — she is truly a secret weapon.

All this leads me to Sleater-Kinney themselves — the real secret weapon. Sure, those in touch with indie rock know and worship the band appropriately. But they will never have the surprise Grammy win of The Arcade Fire, my parents will never like them, and most people won’t get past the howling vocals. Which is perhaps the biggest reason why they’re so important — part of rock music needs to go against the grain, to be counter-culture, to show what’s wrong with the status quo. Sleater-Kinney does just this. The ten songs on the new album clock in at under 40 minutes — again the immediacy is palpable — and they say things about our world that no one else says. This record shows how three women can make their own way in a world dominated from top to bottom by men and sacrifice nothing along the way. Finally, the band demonstrates how to pull of a come-back, returning to recording and touring on their own terms, all while refusing to compromise their songs, their sound, or their souls.

This all comes together in this Important Rock Album. And, really, it’s the true mark of a great rock band.

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