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Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love [Sub Pop]

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Oh thank goodness Sleater-Kinney are back. It’s been 10 years since they chose to take an “indefinite hiatus,” and a whole lot of wild things have happened in that time frame. To quickly sum up, Corin Tucker started a family, then released two lovely yet quiet records fronting the Corin Tucker Band. Carrie Brownstein became something of a celebrity, grabbing attention for her acting chops in small films and TV shows, most notably Portlandia. She returned to music briefly in 2011 with a new band Wild Flag, which also included S-K drummer Janet Weiss. One album and one tour later, Wild Flag called it quits. Lastly, for her part Weiss has kept very busy playing in a variety of bands, most notably a stint with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as one of the Jicks. The reasons behind Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 break-up included Tucker’s decision to focus on raising a family and Brownstein’s serious health issues due to constant touring/recording, all of which seemed to imply a reunion would be unlikely. Yet maybe the time off was enough for the trio to recharge their batteries and begin to miss what they had together. After 10 years on and 10 years off, let’s hope that this new album No Cities to Love also marks the beginning of a new era for the band.

The primary concern with Sleater-Kinney, as with any band that reunites after a significant period away, is whether or not the new music will live up to the old catalog. 2005’s The Woods ultimately reflected a band going out at the top of their game, with everything prior building to that momentous record. A decade later, it’s very comforting to know that they haven’t forgotten how to write a song, nor have they mellowed with age. In some respects it’s like they never left, which is just about all you could ever ask for from Sleater-Kinney. Even John Goodmanson, who produced every one of the band’s previous records except for two, returns to the fold. Yet there are a few notable changes on No Cities to Love that are less apparent on the surface but become more obvious the closer you look. Brownstein has said in interviews that the trio began recording sessions for the album in 2012 with the intention of finding a new approach to the band, and by many measures that appears to be the case. They’ve never sounded cleaner or more focused. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the 10 tracks fly by without stopping for breath or even a ballad. The acidic and highly aggressive grit of their last couple records has been replaced with something a bit more accessible and mature, even though it’s by no means quieter or less vicious. Tucker’s vocals still show more power and range than most, Brownstein’s guitar solos remain vibrant and complex, while Weiss’s intricate rhythms keep everything held together quite nicely.

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of Sleater-Kinney’s more mature headspace across No Cities to Love is to take a microscope to their lyrics. These are some of the most personal songs the band has ever written, and that’s clear right from opener “Price Tag”. Acknowledging her status as a mother with a family, Tucker has harsh words about the recent economic recession and the challenges of trying to make a decent living wage when a lot of larger corporations are out to exploit their workers. Abuse of power is one of the primary themes of the record, and the biting “Fangless” along with the charging “No Anthems” address the issue in smart yet explicit ways. It’s also great to hear the trio sing about inter-band workings as well as their decade-long absence across multiple songs. The bouncy and fun “A New Wave” is about making your own path and not allowing the “venomous and thrilling” voices to change or shape you. They’ve got each other’s backs and will continue to do their own thing even if it drives them into obscurity.

Speaking of obscurity, the two main songs that deal with their hiatus show up right at the end of the album. Of the pair, “Hey Darling” is the most confessional, serving as a bit of a letter to fans. It also happens to be the one song on the record that sounds most like classic Sleater-Kinney. “Explanations are thin, but I feel it’s time/ You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time,” Tucker sings in the very first verse. What follows from there goes into how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sometimes even playing music for a room full of people can leave you feeling lonely. There’s not much subtext to be interpreted, except the idea that band life can become a bit of a drag if that’s all you do for a decade and sometimes you just need a break. “Fade” really plays that through to its fullest and most realized conclusion. “Oh what a price that we paid / My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end,” wails Tucker over Brownstein’s heavy 70’s-style guitar riffs. There are dimming spotlights, a loss of a sense of self, and the question of whether or not the torture was ultimately worth it. The mere existence of No Cities to Love implies that the answer is yes. Considering how it all went down the first ten years, it’s probably best to assume things will be handled very differently from here on out. Who knows how long it might last, but as Tucker herself puts it, “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/ Shake it like never before.”

Buy No Cities to Love from Sub Pop

Album Review: FIDLAR – FIDLAR [Mom + Pop]

FIDLAR sound like a band you’ve heard before. They are not deeply original, and by that same token are not trying to be. It’s almost ironic that though their name is an acronym for “Fuck It Dog, Life’s a Risk,” they take very few of them in their actual music. This is skate punk at its blissfully ignorant core, content to get by on sheer energy and force. You don’t listen to this sort of thing for nuance, but instead for the heavy-hitting guitar riffs that speed past at a thousand miles per hour, the angry sneer in the singer’s voice and how almost every melody makes you want to smash into something. This is music that demands you get busy living or get busy dying. It’s brash, it’s snotty, and it doesn’t give a fuck what you or I think because you’re not supposed to be thinking in the first place. Sometimes you need a record like this to clear your head and shove all the pent up emotions out of your body. The release is nice, but once you get past that, is there anything left worth writing home about? That’s ultimately the true test of a good punk band – whether or not you can move beyond cliche and towards something deeper and better. For their self-titled debut album, FIDLAR only partially succeed at making that magic happen.

Let’s start with the song titles on this album, because they pretty much tell you everything you need to know up front. There are songs about drinking (“Cheap Beer” and “Blackout Stout”), drugs (“Wake Bake Skate” and “Cocaine”), surfing (“No Waves” and “Max Can’t Surf”) and being broke or having a low paying job (“Stoked and Broke,” “5 to 9” and “Paycheck”). There are even a couple songs about the military (“White on White”) and women (“Whore”) in there for good measure. If these guys were a little younger, they’d probably have included a few songs about high school and how much it sucks. Then again, The Ramones, who have a little stylistic similarity to FIDLAR, had no trouble writing about Rock n’ Roll High School well into their 20s. So it’s all a matter of personal preference, really. If a track like “No Waves” calls to mind Nathan Williams’ band Wavves both in title and sound, it may be a somewhat unintentional coincidence but more likely is a sly wink and nod to their friend and future touring partner. The fuzzy digital mess that the guitars make on most tracks is definitely lifted from Wavves, though just about every other aspect of FIDLAR’s music can be considered old school punk rock in the vein of Gun Club, Descendents, Circle Jerks and Fear. There are still plenty of bands out there trying to mine from that exact same cave, but few fare quite so well as these guys, which at the very least tells you they’re doing something right in the studio and on stage. That, and they know their influences backwards and forwards, meaning that behind all these live fast and die young songs there’s actual intelligence and intention.

While FIDLAR’s self-titled debut may be smarter than your average punk record, it also falls into some traps and cliches that make you wish they’d thought some parts through a little more. I mean, songs about drinking, drugs, surfing and being broke can only take you so far, right? When the chorus to “Cheap Beer” comes in and amounts to a shouted, “I / Drink / Cheap / Beer / So / What / Fuck / You,” you can’t help but wonder if they could do just a little bit better than that. Sure, it’s memorable, and I’m sure it becomes a shout-along in concert at a rapid-fire pace, but perhaps the level of discourse could be just a little less lowest common denominator. There’s definitely an undercurrent of darkness and maybe even depression at the heart of some of these songs that are indicated in the lyrics, and that’s certainly interesting even though they tend to glide right over it to get back to partying most of the time. In some weird sense, this record is a kindred spirit with Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet, one of the most single-minded but subversively brilliant records of the last couple decades. FIDLAR haven’t quite found their ideal mixture of insanity and perfection just yet, but the earnestness and youthful energy they bring to every second of this album absolutely makes them a band to keep your eye on.

FIDLAR – Cheap Beer

FIDLAR – White On White

FIDLAR – Gimmie Something

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Album Review: Male Bonding – Endless Now [Sub Pop]

At this point, I’m pretty sure the lo-fi “revival” is dead. It introduced us to a whole new host of bands a couple years back, everyone from Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls to Wavves and Times New Viking, and then naturally segued into the “glo-fi” electronica movement. Now even glo-fi is essentially done too, as we wait for the next big sound to strike. The one lesson learned from all these trends is that some bands get left in the dust when the hype cycle changes, while others adapt and remain within the realm of relevancy. To put it another way, the good bands are smart enough to survive. For most, the recipe for continued success is simple: add fidelity. Glo-fi bands like Washed Out and Toro y Moi have upgraded to a much cleaner sound and their latest records have improved on what was already there. The same can be said for lo-fi groups like the Smith Westerns and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It is from this mold that Male Bonding have taken their cue with their sophmore effort “Endless Now”. Their debut “Nothing Hurts” was ear-catching lo-fi punk rock, but now thanks to some sonic upgrades, the Brits are operating on a far cleaner level, to the point where their sound is best described as pop-punk.

By saying that “Endless Now” is a pop-punk record, a certain stigma almost automatically becomes attached to it. The most popular pop-punk bands of the last several years may enter your mind, everyone from All American Rejects to Blink 182 and Fall Out Boy fall underneath that umbrella. It’s worth noting that you could also call bands like The Jam and Teenage Fanclub pop-punk as well, even if there’s a clear difference between what they’re doing and what other more popular bands of the genre are doing. The point is, Male Bonding wind up on the smarter, more indie side of this genre fence, and it’s not simply because they haven’t had a worldwide hit single (yet). The basic parts – quick and loud electric guitars blasting out power chords mixed with supremely catchy hooks – remain the same, but the difference lies in approach. The guys in Male Bonding are no doubt a lot of fun, but their music isn’t always on the brightest of topics. The murky, spatial cover of “Endless Now” most definitely suggests something far less than upbeat is contained within, and it’s not lying in the least. The last album “Nothing Hurts” was ultimately about being beaten to a pulp both emotionally and physically but ultimately coming out the other side a hardened shell of a person – surviving but still wrecked. This new record continues a similar form of torture, only this time you can understand the lyrics better and the melodies are occasionally exploiting more bouncy, fun energy rather than merely grinding guitars.

The most fascinating artifact on this album has to be first single “Bones”, which in full album form is nearly twice as long as any other track on the record. For 6.5 minutes you’re buried beneath chord after chord, like waves crashing down on top of you in rapid succession. Considering the in-and-out 3 minutes much of the rest of the album appears to push, this is the one moment where you can clearly hear the band attempting something extreme and largely making it work. Similar things can be said about “The Saddle”, the shortest track on the album, save for the last 30 second “Untitled” epilogue. After spending so much of the record bouncing from chord to chord and barely taking a moment to breathe, “The Saddle” goes softer, quieter and acoustic. There’s even a small bit of piano in there to bring some added warmth to the song. Outside of those clear standout moments, there’s not a whole lot else that blatantly draws attention to itself. That doesn’t mean it’s plain or bad, it’s just far more direct and cohesive in approach. You can get “Tame the Sun” trapped in your head for a week and then on your 10th listen through “Channeling Your Fears” will be the new track du jour. That’s a big part of what makes this band and this genre of music quite a bit of fun to listen to when done properly.

If “Endless Now” is lacking in anything, it’s probably surprises. On “Nothing Hurts”, there were tempo and stylistic shifts that were partly unrest from the band but they were also unexpected. There was a certain thrill not knowing exactly what angle they were going to take on the very next track. This new streamlined approach doesn’t leave room for such messing about, so that tension gets diffused. But on the big plus side, the much sharper sound brings with it that shiny pop edge that was all too often buried beneath layers of poor quality equipment. Producer John Agnello does a fantastic job ensuring that Male Bonding sound better overall, but never reach that squeaky clean point where it becomes a betrayal of their intentions. “Endless Now” has the distinct disadvantage of arriving with pre-formed expectations and anticipation thanks to how incredible “Nothing Hurts” really was. In fact, some of the more die-hard fans of the band may be disappointed that the guys have shaved off their musical beards and thrown on some business suits. What Male Bonding lose in early devotees as a result of this album they’ll likely make up at least twofold courtesy of their easier accessibility. It’s not selling out, it’s the rare art of fighting to remain relevant.

Male Bonding – Bones
Male Bonding – Tame the Sun

Buy “Endless Now” from Amazon

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