I wrote an article for a new organization called Safer Scene–which strives to make the punk/alternative/emo scene a more open and safe place for everyone. They’re going to do some really great and incredible stuff for our community and I was honored to help. Make sure you keep up with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr!
This line, from Sleater-Kinney’s 1996 sophomore outing Call The Doctor, was delivered more tauntingly and angrily than triumphantly. It wasn’t yet a declaration, with the band still in its youngest era and lacking a stable drummer. It was more of a mission statement—less about filling a role of the male rock superstar as it is displayed (mockingly) in “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and more about stretching the boundaries about what it means to be a “rock star” in modern America.
Sarcastic intentions or not, by the time Sleater-Kinney’s initial run fizzled out in 2006, Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (best known in recent years from her work in the IFC comedy series Portlandia) were the queens of rock and roll. From 1995’s sonic eruption of Sleater-Kinney to 2005’s equally loud but significantly grander The Woods, the members of Sleater-Kinney declared themselves as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time finest and let out a fierce, guttural scream at the constructed and accepted norms of our society.
The band’s first full-length in ten years is not merely an echo of that scream muted by time, new projects, or maturation. Instead, No Cities To Love is just as loud and clear, just as pissed-off and affective as ever. Flaunting all of the aggression of 1996’s Call the Doctor with the top-notch songwriting and confidence of The Woods, No Cities To Love sees Sleater-Kinney returning at full force.
And they hit the ground running. Opener “Price Tag” wastes no time lingering on the fact that this is the band’s first album in ten years, there’s no huge build-up to what surely is a pressurized can of expectations pent up over a decade of silence. No, Weiss, Tucker and Brownstein just launch right in to a blazing release of frustration at the monotony of routine life and the modern fixation on money. Brownstein’s opening riff is bouncy and sinister and immediately draws listeners back in to the distinct but ever-evolving sound of Sleater-Kinney’s tight, hooky but incredibly complex brand of punk rock. Brownstein’s and Tucker’s guitar lines bare their fangs at each other in somehow beautiful and rousing harmony, as Tucker’s assertive, intense vocals seem once again to lead an army of today’s discontents into a sort of moral, spiritual and societal war.
Each of No Cities To Love’s ten tracks delivers an attack on the powerful and corrupt, and strives to unify the outcasts, the underrepresented and the wrongfully suppressed. “Surface Envy” has all of the gusto and spirit of a classic punk rock song, a vocal back-and-forth with Brownstein and Tucker culminating in a chanting, anthemic chorus of, “Only together do we break the rules.” “Bury Our Friends” carries on in a similar fashion as a proclamation of self-awareness and self-empowerment—“Only I get to be sickened by me…we’re wild and weary, but we won’t give in.”
And this is the essence of the album as a whole, and indeed much of Sleater-Kinney’s back catalog—not letting the perceived notions of what a person should be stop them from being everything they can be. The band proves this point better than they ever have before simply by releasing an album this fantastic ten years removed from their last. That magic is supposed to be gone by now, isn’t it? No Cities To Love is a swift “to hell with that notion” jammed into 33 minutes of intense, passionate and damn good rock and roll music.
No Cities To Love is capped off by the doomsday march of “Fade,” a siren-sounding lead riff leading the listener to emergency, a signifier of time running out more quickly than we imagined. Weiss’s drum lines build steadily to an apex and then die off into cautioned cymbal ticks as Tucker warns, “If there’s no tomorrow, you better live.” “Fade” begs us to make the most of our time as Tucker’s razor-sharp croon nearly seems to be coming from another world—“if we are truly dancing our swansong, darling/shake it like never before.”
Sleater-Kinney’s eighth record embodies this idea, with every minute exuding this tension of having so much to say and do but so little time and space to do it. As a result, No Cities To Love is a blast of colorful, liberating, fist-in-the-air sing-along rock music that is so dense and satisfying that it’s good enough to hold us off for another ten years– but let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long. We need the queens of rock and roll now more than ever.
NOTE: This article was originally published in The Minaret.
Death Cab For Cutie is quickly approaching the two-decade milestone, and with that comes the weight of legacy. The act has served as a major representative of millennial indie rock, with two or three seminal records well over a decade old and one on the brink (2005’s major label Plans). For years now, Death Cab has set the bar for a very distinct brand of professional and confessional indie music. From haunting and minimalist echoes of youth (2000’s We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes) to cathartic, arena-worthy emo rock (2003’s classic Transatlanticism), to glossy, macabre and mature balladry (Plans), Death Cab has compiled a bildungsroman of sensitivity and surprising grace while maintaining one of the most consistently great discographies in indie rock.
So how does one bring a new record into the conversation with all-time favorites? How can I talk about Kintsugi, the band’s eighth studio album, in the same breath as Transatlanticism, a record with over 12 years of personal and musical history behind it? The easy answer is that I can’t. I can’t hold Kintsugi opener “No Room In Frame” up to Transatlanticism opener “The New Year” with a straight face, with any real insight to be had. I can’t seriously attempt to compare one of the best album climaxes I’ve ever heard (the one-two-three punch of “Tiny Vessels,” “Transatlanticism,” and “Passenger Seat”) to any selection of this new record. There’s no contest, and at this point there honestly never could be. The only question I can answer, in the immediate wake of release, is whether or not Kintsugi is a good record. Not ignoring the legacy of a great band, but acknowledging the impossibility of the task of one-on-one comparison.
With all of this in mind, I can now confidently say this: Kintsugi, is a great record. Kintsugi simultaneously balances all of the most admired aspects of the band’s discography while teetering on the edge of new territory. The band’s last record with long time member Chris Walla and the first without Walla as producer, Kintsugi is a record of transition, both in content and execution.
After the nervous bliss of 2011’s mildly received Codes and Keys, Kintsugi feels like a return to more depressing subject matter. Throughout the record, relationships crumble and fade away, homes are abandoned and reestablished, grey hairs appear and fall out. The aged character of this record suits the band nicely—indeed, Death Cab has always seemed to have an old soul, level-headed but constantly aching.
Kintsugi is an art form that reconstructs broken artifacts, lining the cracks with gold. This idea pervades the record, a constant sense that things have fallen apart for the good of better reassembly. This is a record that does not dwell, but tries to move on. Opener “No Room In Frame,” in keeping with this theme, is a driving song, maintaining songwriter Ben Gibbard’s affinity for Kerouac-like tales of fleeing. “I disappear like a trend/in the hum of the five in the early morning,” he delivers bouncily over meandering electronics and deliberate guitar plucks. This stellar reintroduction is an affirmation of the relevance of self-discovery well into adulthood, a reminder to recognize one’s self and act in accordance (“how can I stay in the sun when the rain flows all through my veins/it’s true”).
While Walla’s production work has pushed this band to its greatest heights over the past twenty years, the introduction of new producer Rich Costey into the mix really helped shake off any sense of staleness. This is especially evident on dancy standout “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find),” which sports a kind of bouncy indie pop reminiscent of The 1975. Meanwhile, “Little Wanderer” is light and breezy while “Hold No Guns” is intimate and isolated. The range of texture on Kintsugi is impressive, the record still maintaining a solid sense of flow (despite a little clunkiness toward the middle—the transition from “Hold No Guns” to the harsh ‘80s synth of “Everything’s A Ceiling” is rather abrupt).
The movement-inducing style of “Good Help” and “Everything’s A Ceiling” marks new territory for the band, but much of this record is a comforting point of balance struck between Death Cab’s past stylistic ventures. Lead single “Black Sun” recalls “Narrow Stairs” in its biting guitar solo and lyrical darkness, but incorporates Codes and Keys‘s carefully articulated use of electronics and tidy production. “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” sounds like an extension of some of Plans mid-album cuts, while closer “Binary Sea” plays as a less reactive version of Transatlanticism’s more majestic piano-led numbers. This fine-tuning never feels like a cheap retread, however. Instead, it comes off as reflective of a journey so far, a conscious admission of a checkpoint reached. With a core member leaving for good, it feels like an important and well-deserved wrapping-up of an era.
However, this is a wrapping-up in full awareness of another act to follow. The final lines of the record reflect this awareness of legacy and hopefulness for great music to come: “lean in close, and lend an ear/there’s something brilliant bound to happen here.” After years of creating great music, Death Cab has secured its position as a solid, trusted institution of indie rock. Kintsugi, as a record of transition, admits this and promises to follow through in the future. In the meantime, it’s just another great entry into a wonderful body of work. Who knows, maybe history will treat it as kindly as its most revered predecessors.
NOTE: This article was originally published in The Minaret.
If only existential crises were as fun as Courtney Barnett makes them seem. On her debut full length record, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett delivers a snapshot of the life of a twenty-something: an aimless confusing existence composed of equal parts punk, rock and roll, and ‘80s shambling indie pop. The result is hauntingly accurate and strangely anthemic for those living in a transitional liminal space— troubled enough to get sad to, upbeat enough to yell along to. An excellent combination.
No song nails this combination like opener “Elevator Operator,” a loosely rocked-out number about a depressed office worker. The lyrics to this song, as with the rest of the record, are utterly dense—an unfiltered ramble streaming among brightly strummed electric guitars. Barnett’s voice is slightly bored as she recounts this strange dual crisis: “Don’t jump little boy, don’t jump off that bridge….he said ‘I think you’re projecting the way that you’re feeling.”
“Pedestrian At Best” is a little bit harder; a more pronounced punk or grunge edge pervades this anthem of false perception. Here, Barnett lets some grit into her voice to overpower the wall of sound behind her: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you.” As close to catharsis as Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit will get, “Pedestrian At Best” is somehow an empowering way of saying “I’m really not that great.”
The K Records influence pervades a good portion of the record, taking its best form with “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party,” a perfect sonic representation of the introvert’s desire for social interaction, but without having to get out of bed. “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home,” Barnett flatly delivers over a beachy melody.
Some of the record’s best moments aren’t well-suited for a sunny drive, however. “Small Poppies” is a long, bluesy cut that comes across like a daytime fever dream: “I dreamed I stabbed you with a coat hanger wire.” “Depreston” broods over the story of a couple buying their first home together, building up to a delicate delivery of the record’s most heartbreaking lines: “If you’ve got a spare half a million/ you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” This may seem mundane, but in reality it’s a prescient reminder that it’s okay to start over if the resources are available— but that means giving up on what’s been built so far. This is the crux of what makes Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit such a good record. The pervading feeling of steam being lost in an effort to make more of one’s life, but a willingness to go on trying anyway. More than anything, “Sometimes” is about control over identity, self and destiny. Courtney Barnett is startlingly wise in this department, and this debut record is essential listening because of it.
NOTE: This article was originally published in The Minaret