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No Cities To Love Melissa Rakshana Steiner , January 21st, 2015 12:58

If surprise albums are starting to seem de rigueur, I, for one, am glad that in this age of social media babble, there still exists the opportunity to get stupidly excited. Even better when the surprise album comes from one of your favourite bands you'd given up hope of ever hearing from again - 9 years is a long time after all.  The announcement in October 2014 that Sleater-Kinney had not only got back together without anyone realising but were also releasing their eighth studio album, No Cities To Love, stirred up a fervour of anticipation, sending music journalists scrambling for that old Greil Marcus quote about Sleater-Kinney being "the best band in the world".

Since the band's indefinite hiatus in 2006, all three members, guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss have been busy; among other projects Carrie and Janet formed Wild Flag, and Corin The Corin Tucker Band. But Sleater-Kinney left a gap unfilled. The sonic alchemy the three create together is unique and their last album, The Woods, left fans on a high.

Anyone expecting a return to the prog leanings of The Woods may be surprised by No Cities To Love. Produced by John Goodmanson, who also produced four of Sleater-Kinney's earlier albums, the new album recalls the band's interest in pop hooks and is not shy of a chorus. While the tightly managed polish and control perhaps doesn't grab the heart in the visceral way of older Sleater-Kinney, an emotional urgency remains on this album, albeit conveyed with greater sophistication.

'Power' is an accurate description. Lyrically it appears often, many of the songs engaging with personal and collective struggle in a vapid, consumerist society; the propulsive opener 'Price Tag' an example of this. But it also manifests in the extraordinary voice of Corin Tucker. If she has burnished off the raw edges over the years, the force and largesse of it certainly has not diminished. She uses it to gutsy effect in 'Surface Envy', a celebration of solidarity with a rousing chorus that I don't think I'm completely off in saying could find a place during half-time at the big game: "we win, we lose, only together do we make the rules!", while 'No Anthems' has her toning it down to a sinister purr. Perhaps most interesting is the concluding track 'Fade', where the drama amps and Black Sabbath-style reverb is applied, giving way to camp rock opera recalling queercore band The Need's The Need Is Dead.

Carrie Brownstein's virtuoso guitar playing is also still very much in evidence, avoiding rock-god-predictability by virtue of the unexpected direction in which she takes it. This willingness to continue to experiment with traditional rock formula ensures that this album is not a nostalgic return to form, but gives the listener something completely new to chew on. One moment you'll be bopping around to the upbeat 'New Wave', the next, your fist will be in the air.

Contributing to the tough, bombastic sound to which Sleater-Kinney fans are now accustomed is Janet Weiss's deliberate half-time beat anchoring the first single, 'Bury Our Friends'. Unfortunately, this prominence is a rarity, much of the time the drums are lost in the mix, which is a shame given that the precision and intensity of Janet's drumming has always been one of the major joys of the band. Nevertheless, many elements of a classic Sleater-Kinney album are present here, in particular the intimacy of Carrie and Corin's interwoven guitar which Carrie has described as their vernacular.

There is also a newfound grandeur, fitting for a band who may have formed 20 years ago, but who have always carved out their own niche, always confidently pushed forward to reach new heights and tell a new story. As Corin sings on 'Surface Envy': "When we leave say goodbye to your old way of life/I can breathe way up high now it's our turn to fly". Welcome back, Sleater-Kinney.