Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Sleater-Kinney's album titles have always been interesting: 2019's The Center Won't Hold came from Yeats' The Second Coming and – given the album's background – the “little rope” here may refer to a rope of rescue, the gallows' rope, the rope that binds, constrains and tethers, or the one you might be at the end of?
The one given to hang yourself?
Since their return in to the studio for 2015's thrilling No Cities to Love after a decade-long recording hiatus and downtime, Sleater-Kinney -- the core band of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss – delivered the strong The Center Won't Hold (produced by St Vincent) although their most recent Path of Wellness (2021), after the departure of drummer Weiss, was something of a creative dip.
Originally out of Olympia in Washington state and associated with the riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney had broken big with their third album Dig Me Out (1997), their first with Weiss.
They delivered a thrilling mix of the personal and political welded to alt.rock, explosive grunge and cathartic rock'n'roll and over subsequent albums found a mainstream rock audience, to some extent riding off the parallel career of Brownstein as an actress and co-writer of the satirical, Emmy-winning television series Portlandia.
The band's reappearance five years ago has certainly been welcome and to their considerable armoury they added aspects of melodic New Wave and power pop which makes for albums which connect as much as they challenge.
Little Rope – their 11th since their self-titled debut in 1995 – is a hefty mix of all of those elements, sometimes chaotically gripping and full of jarring sonic and lyrical juxtapositions where emotions and instruments collide.
Yet despite that, their melodic sensibilities weld everything together.
To pull this off can't have been easy: Brownstein's mother and stepfather were killed in car crash in Italy in late 2022.
Given that, you'd expect the opener Hell to be a scream of anguish from inside the charnel house but it opens with low, portentous guitar and pulls the listener in: “Hell don’t have no worries, Hell don’t have no past, Hell is just a signpost when you take a certain path . . .”.
Then it explodes with a desperate roar, “You ask 'Why', like there's no tomorrow”.
The issue of loss and emotional damage, but also the uncertainties of these times, is everywhere here of course: on Don't Feel Right, “I get up, make a list, what I’ll do, once I’m fixed. Read more poems, ditch half my meds, dress my age, call back my friends”.
But these songs don't wallow and are surprisingly framed: Needlessly Wild recalls Lena Lovich (beyond Lucky Number); Small Finds mostly recalls Sonic Youth; the radio-friendly Say It Like You Mean It – “go softly with me, my heart is raw, too many losses” – is at the intersection of power-pop, alt.rock and desperate New Wave.
As is Hunt You Down: “I'm locking the room, I’m not ready. Sorrow hides outside the door disguised as luck”.
There are lesser moments (the lyrically well-intentioned but mundane Crusaders) and Weiss' replacement, touring drummer Angie Boylan, lacks the nuance of her predecessor.
Little Rope can be challenging but however you come at it, it is much more accessible that its backstory might suggest -- maybe too much so for original fans for its alt.New Wave.
However there's still that keen Sleater-Kinney intelligence at work, notably in Brownstein's distinctively aggressive and cathartic guitar attack.
You can hear and buy this album at bandcamp here
This album is one of four discussed at the new Sound Thinking podcast, check it out here