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How Sleater-Kinney became one of the last great rock bands

Mary Timony, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein perform at Coachella as the band Wild Flag
Mary Timony, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein perform at Coachella as the band Wild Flag
Frazer Harrison/Getty

The opening guitar line on "Price Tag" only peeks through Corin Tucker's raw vocal performance. But that guitar line does more than introduce the first song on Sleater-Kinney's first new album in 10 years; it also announces a rebirth.

"Price Tag" is a pounding anthem about greed, broken humanity, and giving power to the powerless. As Tucker says in the liner notes as printed by Subpop, the song is about the "struggle to be heard against the dominant culture or status quo." That, in a nutshell, is the battle this three-piece band has been fighting since their 1995 self-titled debut album.

Sleater-Kinney is one of the most important bands out there — but if you're like a lot of people, you've probably never heard of it.

Here's everything you need to know before you listen to the trio's eighth LP, No Cities to Love, out Tuesday, January 20.

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Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss at Arthurfest in 2005 ( Bob Berg/Getty)

What is Sleater-Kinney?

Sleater-Kinney is a left-leaning, feminism-preaching rock band that emerged out of the Pacific Northwest's indie-rock scene in the mid-90s. The group is made up of Corin Tucker on lead vocals and guitar, Carrie Brownstein also on guitar and vocals, and Janet Weiss on drums.

The group took its name from a highway exit in Lacey, Washington, near where the band formed in 1994. Tucker and Brownstein formed the band as a side-project from other groups, but eventually, Sleater-Kinney became their primary focus. Tucker and Brownstein have been with the band in every iteration. The drummer position has been held by three other women, but Janet Weiss is the most recent and longest lasting drummer for the group.

The group released seven LPs between 1995 and 2005 and even opened for Pearl Jam. With every album, its sound became a little cleaner and a little less angry. Then, in 2006, the band announced a hiatus without explanation.

The next 10 years went by without another Sleater-Kinney album. Weiss joined another band, Tucker released two solo albums titled 1,000 Years and Kill My Blues, and Brownstein started a band named Wild Flag and co-created Portlandia, the Emmy-nominated sketch comedy show on IFC.

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Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney during The Village Voice 2nd Annual 'Siren Music Festival'  ( Theo Wargo/Getty)

Why is the band featuring only women such a big deal?

"It almost seems like there's this backlash against any kind of forward thinking," Tucker told Dr. Drew magazine in 2000, "Looking at the sexism in rock, people are doing it so deliberately, and men are grasping for any power they can in a really ugly way."

Even though there have been female voices in popular music since its inception, women are often relegated to genres that are often looked down on by music critics and the community as a whole. Think of pop, for instance. Until very recently, the genre was seen as a place for sell-outs, lackluster talents — and women.

The counter to pop was rock — a big-haired, big-guitared boys' club. Into that world strode Sleater-Kinney, a band of all women dominating its own section of the indie-rock scene, decidedly not there to be a "girl band." To Sleater-Kinney, boys just didn't matter. The band was great, and it didn't give a fuck what the boys were doing.

"I won’t suck your big ego and then swallow all my pride / I’m just spitting out the memory and stains you left inside of me," Tucker sings on "How to Play Dead" from the band's self-titled debut. Beginning with a kiss-off to the male dominated industry turned out to be indicative of the group's approach.

Take a song like "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," from the band's 1996 LP Call the Doctor. Sleater-Kinney wanted to take over.

"I wanna be your Joey Ramone

Pictures of me on your bedroom door

Invite you back after the show

I'm the queen of Rock and roll."

Tucker's voice chimes over Brownstein's walking guitar line until Tucker finally screams over the pounding drums. This is rock and roll, and Sleater-Kinney isn't asking anybody if it can play in this sandbox. It's telling everybody the next great band has arrived.

What are the five Sleater-Kinney songs I need to hear to understand the group's appeal?

1) "How to Play Dead" from 1995's Sleater-Kinney

"How to Play Dead" is an angry rant against a guy who can't enjoy his blow job because he's too high. It evolves into a feminist breaking point whose vital lyrics you can see above.

2) "One More Hour" from 1997's Dig Me Out

This is the breakup song of all breakup songs. In fact, Tucker and Brownstein recorded it in the midst of their breakup. It shows an emotional core of sadness and hardship that would create many of the group's most famous songs in the future.

3) "#1 Must Have" from 2000's All Hands on the Bad One

"#1 Must Have" features a catchy melody, a sharp guitar line, and a deep, deep anger. The song alludes to the deep misogyny of the music industry and specifically refers to the 1999 Woodstock at which several women were raped.

4) "Jumpers" from 2005's The Woods

The first six albums of Sleater-Kinney's career were thrashing attacks on misogyny. The Woods took a step back into a calmer, more polished arena. On "Jumpers," a great guitar riff rings out, and sadness saturates this song about Golden Gate Bridge jumpers.

5) "Bury Our Friends" from 2015's No Cities to Love

"We're wild and weary, but we won't give in," Sleater-Kinney sings in the chorus of this new song. If the band has proved anything with this album, it's that the group isn't giving in anytime soon. With those discordant vocals and guitar riffs, Sleater-Kinney is still wild, but it doesn't sound weary.

Why did the band decide to break up? Why did it come back?

No Cities to Love is Sleater-Kinney's first album since The Woods.

"It was the end of a chapter, but there was a sense of accomplishment to have not skidded to a halt — we beat [Gwyneth] Paltrow on ‘conscious uncoupling’ by about 10 years," Brownstein told Jessica Hopper at Pitchfork.

No Cities to Love, then, is a remarriage. It's a renewal of vows to be badass. To be difficult. To be great.

Weiss told Pitchfork that the band rejoined because, "We had no reason not to." They were all still friends, they all still loved Sleater-Kinney, and they all wanted to create another album — if they could create something that sounded new.

"It should sound urgent and as necessary as if we had just started as a band. And I think the only hesitation was whether we’d be able to achieve that, and so that’s what gave us pause," Brownstein told Paste Magazine. "That’s why we didn’t announce anything. We kind of waited to see if we were capable of that."

But the world of music has changed in the 10 years Sleater-Kinney has been away. The indie band that can support itself financially — a small band with a healthy following that will turn out to watch the band perform and buy its albums — increasingly doesn't exist in 2015 the way that it did in 1995 or even 2005.

Yet fans of the band will likely be more than willing to pick up with the group right where it left off. When Sleater-Kinney dropped out of music, there was no band to fill the angry, punk-tinted, rock-shaped hole it left. It was a trailblazer no one followed, and, thus, it didn't leave a path of influenced artists behind them to take their place. The return of Sleater-Kinney, then, is an opportunity to fill that gap again, and to hopefully influence groups of the future — especially in a world where rock music seems increasingly irrelevant.

There are plenty of artists out there that won't ever be Taylor Swifts or One Directions, but might just be Nirvanas or Pavements or even Sleater-Kinneys. Having the trio back makes that all the more likely.

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Carrie Brownstein at the 2006 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festiva ( Barry Brecheisen/Getty)

Is No Cities to Love worth the long, long wait?

Despite how good those first seven albums are and how defining they were to the band's sound, No Cities to Love is my favorite Sleater-Kinney album yet.

The girls these women were in their 20s are still there, still riddled with anger and frustration and fear. But these musicians are smarter now — not necessarily subdued, but more calculated. As a result, the intensity of No Cities to Love feels stronger than ever before, even if the guitar riffs are a shorter and the drums reined in. It's that care, that precision and calculation, that guides Sleater-Kinney now.

Tucker and Brownstein dated until 1997. On the first three Sleater-Kinney albums, their voices intertwined perfectly, one peaking while the other fell, or dropping back to make room for the other. By 1997's breakup album Dig Me Out, they had fallen into comfortable but separate spaces, with Brownstein backing up Tucker in the rhythm section while Tucker made the melody or the screaming chorus.

In No Cities to Love the pair's relationship has matured. They don't drown each other out, or muddy each other's voices. On "Bury Our Friends," the album's first single, Tucker begins the song with a verse that alternates between talking and singing, climbing to the peaks of her alto range before Brownstein joins in to sing the chorus. Their voices meld together but never quite sync up perfectly, as they both hit the notes they were individually meant to find. It's a great reminder of how Sleater-Kinney has worked for so long because it allows for all of its voices to shine through, not just one.

No Cities to Love channels so much of what makes Sleater-Kinney a great rock band. It's emotional, angry, and smart. The lyrics are wrenching and relentless. It has the balletic riffs of 1999's The Hot Rock, the anger and passion of Sleater-Kinney, and the anthemic choruses of The Woods.

On the final track of the album "Fade" Tucker and Brownstein sing, "All of the roles that we play/ In your mark, close the worlds, let's escape." What's perfect about No Cities to Love is that the only role Sleater-Kinney has to play anymore is its own.

Where can I hear the album?

No Cities to Love is available for purchase on iTunes and streaming on Spotify. It is also available on vinyl.

You can listen to the whole album here:

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