Sleater-Kinney, "No Cities to Love". From one of the two concerts I attended in 2015. Both were Sleater-Kinney concerts. I can't overstate how much it meant to me when they returned from their "hiatus". I could have made this list the ten songs from No Cities to Love and it would accurately reflect what I listened to that year.
Vince Staples, "Norf Norf". OK, this is an actual music video.
Hey, guess what? I'm not done with Sleater-Kinney. Here's the official video for "No Cities to Love". You can watch it twice if you want, just to make sure you identify all the guest stars (which include Captain Marvel and someone who went to high school with my daughter):
Sleater-Kinney, "Sympathy". Corin Tucker's finest moment, and another ultimate 9/11 song.
Norah Jones, "Come Away with Me". The album earned Jones her first Grammy, at the age of 23. Also her second, third, fourth, and fifth Grammy. It was her debut album.
Pink, "Don't Let Me Get Me". I obsess over this video. I used it in the classroom. I've written about both the song and the video before. After seeing her live for the first time, in 2002, I wrote:
The show had many highlights ... the oddest one for me came with the final song of the night, "Don't Let Me Get Me." This was the anthem all the girls had been waiting for, and seeing and hearing them sing along to this complex song was bizarre. What does it mean when a bunch of kids happily shout out "I wanna be somebody else"? The closest thing I can think of is when the audience would sing along with Johnny Rotten's "No Future!" ... as if in the act of proclaiming our nihilism, we were expressing our love of life. Except I don't ever remember wanting to be Johnny Rotten, while I think a lot of people in that audience would have been happy if the "somebody else" they got to be was in fact the woman who introduced those words to us in the first place: Pink.
I didn't realize this would become a mini-theme, but once again, I pick an album that meant the most to me personally over albums that I might think of as "better". I've written way too much about this band ... not sure what I could add at the moment. Suffice to say that they are my favorite band since this album came out in 1997, and were already approaching that status by then. I've mentioned seeing many of the acts on this list multiple times ... since I first saw this group, I've seen them 15 times, only one less time than I've seen Bruce Springsteen during that period (and I've seen 7 or 8 shows featuring members of the band in "side projects"). The Woods could easily be on this list. That's an album remarkable for being arguably their best, ten years after their first, seven albums in. But Dig Me Out won my heart. And there has never been a better breakup song than "One More Hour".
Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:
Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to thenervous system."
I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.
Life-changing moments are often recognized only after the fact. The closest I ever came to a real life-changer was back in the winter of ‘72, when I realized in my heart that life could be summarized by Sisyphus as Camus described him in his famous essay. I whipped quickly from laughter to tears and back again, as I made a connection to that man pushing that rock for eternity. I try not to dismiss these kinds of moments in others (usually a religious awakening) because I had the same thing happen to me.
I think by the end of our first Bruce Springsteen concert in 1975 that we knew something had changed. It’s more obvious in retrospect, after 40+ years of concerts and albums and road trips, but there was something special enough about that first show that we came back for more. And more and more.
I did not know, on April 8, 1997, that Dig Me Out, the new album by Sleater-Kinney, would affect me in a similar fashion. Until that point I’d been aware of the band without giving myself over to them. Their previous album, Call the Doctor, had some impressive songs, with my favorite being “Good Things”, but I didn’t love it from start to finish. I liked the band enough to pick up Dig Me Out, though, albeit not on its release date ... I wasn’t hooked yet. I found that album to be more consistent than Call the Doctor, and there were so many great songs I could barely pick a favorite (if forced to decide, I’d go with “One More Hour”).
I saw them for the first time in August of ‘98, when they were still touring behind Dig Me Out. It might have been that night when I understood something special was going on. It wasn’t that they were an irresistible live force, at least not yet ... Corin let her voice make the statements, and what a voice it is, but she was fairly calm onstage. Carrie already had her rock star moves ... she was far and away the most charismatic. More important, they were loud in the classic punk manner, and the sound system was never sufficient, so it took years before I felt I could really appreciate their concerts.
But there was Janet Fucking Weiss. I’ve seen a few great drummers in my day ... Keith Moon was always my favorite, which is why I stopped thinking of the band as “The Who” after he died. Janet Weiss was knocking on the door of the great drummers. Often, the mix at S-K shows was bad enough that the drums were the easiest thing to hear, so I knew right away how great she was. And she had, and has, great drummer hair.
Since that night, I’ve never been able to hear their music without noticing how great she is. It was another step beyond fandom to something else.
They played a song or two from their upcoming album, The Hot Rock, but the Dig Me Out songs (six of them) made the biggest impression.
Something had happened between Sleater-Kinney and me. I saw them twice in 1999, twice in 2000, three times in 2002, and once a year between 2003 and 2006 (it helped that this Portland band played quite often in the Bay Area). By the time of their hiatus, I’d seen them a dozen times, and they fit the cliché of the artist who keeps getting better. They now had a confidence on stage (Carrie’s memoir showed how much that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t tell). Their unique sound combined three idiosyncratic talents, all remarkable, into a whole that was impossibly better than the parts. Corin’s astonishing vocals ... Carrie’s singular guitar work ... and Janet, the most traditional sounding of the group, she sounded like a Rock Drummer, except she was perhaps the greatest living Rock Drummer.
We know now how necessary their hiatus was. With the passing years, my hopes that they would return grew weaker. And, as I have said many times, I pined miserably because I knew at my age, I was unlikely to ever find another artist that would mean so much to me.
Which is another way of saying that they had changed my life. Not just because I missed them, but also because I thought they were irreplaceable. And I knew this in 2006, and in the following “hiatus” years, in a way I could never have imagined in 1997 when Dig Me Out was released.
So OK, it’s just a rock and roll band, and “life-changing” is a pretty big claim. Sisyphus changed my life. In music, Bruce Springsteen did the same. But Sleater-Kinney, great artists that they were and are, looked at the world with a pitiless eye, but also suggested a life worth living. It was rewarding to follow them. Life-changing? Maybe that goes too far. But they were a difference maker.
That the hiatus finally ended, that their new album was as good as what came before, that their concerts are better than what came before (I’ve seen them three times since the return) ... this is more miraculous than you might think. The world is full of artists who came back only to remind us of how good they used to be. Sleater-Kinney came back, and they were as good as they used to be.
And for me, it all started 20 years ago today, when Dig Me Out was released.
Here they are at 924 Gilman, a month-and-a-half after the album was released:
There are a few live albums that I treasure: B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, 1969: Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed, Neil Young’s Time Fades Away and Live Rust, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Live!, Ramones, It’s Alive, pretty much any live Bruce Springsteen albums, The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, Otis Redding’s Live in Europe, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. But mostly, I find live albums to be useful as a souvenir of a show I might have attended, but otherwise I prefer studio recordings. (This isn’t to say I prefer studio recordings to live performances, just that a lot of what makes for a good concert performance can’t be duplicated on record.)
As is well-documented, Sleater-Kinney’s comeback from a long hiatus has been a remarkable success, with the album No Cities to Love as good as any they had released, and with the subsequent tour, of which I saw three shows, showing that if anything, S-K was more powerful than ever. Thus, it’s appropriate that they have finally released their first live album, recorded early in the tour.
There isn’t anything extravagant about the album ... one disc, just over 47 minutes long, only 13 songs, no cover versions. Many, even most, of my favorites are missing. But I have no complaints about the song selection. Four songs from No Cities to Love, four from the last pre-hiatus album, The Woods (arguably their best), and five split across four albums, with “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” the oldest and Dig Me Out the only one of the four with two selections. There are two basic formats live albums take, a career retrospective or a focus on recent material. Live in Paris is largely the latter. It serves as further evidence that Sleater-Kinney is not yet in decline ... the “later” songs are just as good as the older ones.
It’s nice to have a decent mix ... there is a lot of S-K live on YouTube, but too much of it is audience recordings. What makes the album work is what makes their concerts work, indeed, what makes everything they do work. Corin is a great singer, Carrie is a charismatic and idiosyncratic guitarist and singer, Janet is one of the premier living rock drummers, they write great songs, and with all of this, they are somehow still more than the sum of their parts.
The question remains, is Live in Paris a mandatory addition to the catalog? A few of the songs sound better here, everything is at least good, and the song selection is excellent. But, as is generally true with live albums, when I want to hear Sleater-Kinney, I’m more likely to put on The Woods or Dig Me Out than to listen to Live in Paris.
Sub Pop has kindly put the entire album on YouTube:
To show what a good mix can do, here is “Entertain” as it showed up on YouTube the night after the concert, followed by the audio version from Live in Paris. Janet kills it no matter which one you hear.
It's hard to deny the visuals of Carrie, but the latter sure sounds better.