Sleater-Kinney – Little Rope (Loma Vista)

Little Rope is the 11th album by Sleater-Kinney, who were formed 30 years ago by current band members Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Given the catalyst for this album, it is likely Brownstein doing the lions’ share of the writing and Tucker performing absolutely stunning vocals.

Despite their longevity, and their level of success, performing support for Pearl Jam in 2003 for instance, I have somehow missed them. Entirely my fault for being out of touch, but I’m not sure what I’ll be listening to. After hearing it, I’m still not sure. There’s such an eclectic, experimental feel heaving on the genre transgression, along with a quiet/ loud sensibility, a lean sound vs aggressive rock and punk beats that leave you disoriented and confused. I went to the bio.

Sleater-KinneyThere I learned that Little Rope was forged by grief, after Brownstein’s mother and stepfather were killed in a car collision. The bio states that the album “Careens headfirst into flaw, into brokenness, a meditation on what living in a world of perpetual crisis has done to us, and what we do to the world in return…how we navigate grief, who we navigate it with, and the ways in which it transforms us.”

Distorted thought the lens of tragedy and trauma Little Rope makes perfect sense. The album itself has all of the elements of a collision and we’re somehow involved. There’s a jarring. A raw anger and confusion to it, a frustration. The videos are twisted dream sequences, or the feeling of drowning in depression and tension. Like grief, the lyrics turn and twist on you, sound comes and goes in waves and its either isolating, lonely or overwhelming. You can’t trust the mood which can boil into anger or drop away into despair at any minute. It feels unreal and unstable.

It’s clear that Tucker and Brownstein know each other well and have worked on songs together for decades. Much of the process involved the two shut in a room with a guitar a mic and an amp and little else. Many will miss the light, complex touch of Janet Weiss’ beats. An innovative and experimental drummer who helped define their sound; Weiss came to the end of her rope in 2019. They have been touring with Angie Boylan but the internet is coy when grilled about who the drummer on Little Rope is. I can say that overall, there is a simpler style than Weiss’s, not because this drummer is not capable of complexity or experimentation, but the raw and vulnerable feel of Little Rope requires a simpler beat at times, where a leaner sound is more effective at revealing emotional damage. There are other times when the skill is apparent and drums are layered, heavy, subtle or almost absent.

Taking it song by song, number 1 on an album is expected to be a banger, so it’s a surprise to hear the slow, desperate “Hell don’t have no worries” refrain, on Hell that is a departure from the usual. Ironically a regular feature of Sleater-Kinney is to subvert the expected.

Hell’s opening refrain wouldn’t be out of place as the theme song in a western film. It develops into an eclectic punk pop, country and western, and even dips into electronica. An interesting sound tricky to quantify, defying being pinned into a single genre. I’d hazard New Wave. The more I hear Corin Tucker on vocals, the more impressed I am. Just because she doesn’t spend every song showing off, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an incredible voice. Slow start, paired down. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein on vocals and guitar. Very rock chorus. Distorted, fast, a-tonal guitar. There’s an anger at the world. Hell has attacking, shrieking, punchy vocals and a feeling of processing pain.

The boppy, danceable, Needlessly Wild pops up. With classic punk vocal gimmicks over a basic rock beat. “Aggressively fun,” as per the lyrics. Simple fills. Simple beat. Here I find the influence of Blondie, where Needlessly Wild is reminiscent of Rip Her To Shreds. The vocals are great and the driving beat gives it an urgency not felt in Hell. The New Wave 80s inspiration is hooky in the extreme. I struggle to name the genre so Indie will have to do for Say It Like You Mean It which has a softer, 4/4 beat. One the video, an older woman in a bar mimes the song. This is another departure from the ordinary as youth is revered in music industry videos. The rest of the people in the bar/café ignore her as she interacts with them. The chorus is catchy. Black and white music video reveals how no one is affected by her – echoing the lyrics that no one is listening to her. Only a feminist would choose this as the video.

Hunt You Down has anxiety ridden lyrics with a happy tone. It retains the 4/4 beat but the drums are barely there – all rim shots, no snare, no kick to start. Paired down again where the kick only remains. Simple again but who cares when you can dance to it. Then atonal guitar with distorted bass notes. Small Finds has more complex drums. Working the snare over the high hat. Tucker’s powerful voice flourishes and trills in coloratura sounds often found in punk or new wave. Quirky, note bending and harmonic. Alt rock leaning towards experimental with New Wave overtones and Punk undertones.

Don’t Feel Right has an interesting opening. Fast paced drums, with no time to reverberate before being struck again giving a tambourine effect. Back to basic for the verses. It’s a perfectly serviceable punk pop rock song The Slits would be proud of.  As a feminist I note the list of unapologetically women’s concerns that align with the raw nature of the album itself and the style that harks back to confessional poetry.

We are asked “Who do you love more?” in Six Mistakes. Distorted guitar builds to a crescendo, an atonal wall of noise with heavy drums a lot of bass. This heavier sound is more aggressive. A lot of kick and a little tom form a heavy rock beat. The punk vocals remain with a faster pace and some lo fi sounds.

Crusaders has a message about book burning arseholes. Feminism strikes again. 4/4. A driving beat and distorted guitar drops away for the clean, almost spoken word lyrics in the verses with a straightforward chorus.

Dress Yourself is more reflective. from distorted bass to clean keyboard (I think). There are harmonies and layers. The pleading “Give me a reason, give me a remedy. Give me a new word for the old pain inside of me. Give me the madness, give me a memory.” Speak directly to tragedy.

The video for Untidy Creature matches the longer sustained notes that overpower the vocals, drowning them out while a conventionally attractive woman in a singlet and pants is holding her breath underwater in the bath for an uncomfortable amount of time. “Holding pieces so tight”. This is again unconventional use of music video with no edits at all and little movement, but a huge amount of tension. 3 minutes in and she hasn’t breathed yet, listeners find the tension building, and there’s the knowledge that her chest will be tight and burning, with a struggle to stay contained and calm. It’s powerful, but with a side of desperation and sadness. Slower pace, languorous and languid. Dolce and dulcet tones. The quiet/loud contradiction continues.

The mood belies a trapped restraint, an aggressive anger, and a fear of a future less controlled emotional explosion. It’s raw and vital and there’s a feeling that a vicious creature lies in wait under the surface. Soul searching and vulnerable, at once defensive and attacking, the album has the markings of accomplished and experienced musicians throwing out the rules and delivering what is there in the wake of disaster in all its ugly glory and pain.

Andra Jenkin

Sleater-Kinney’s Little Rope is released Friday, January 19th on Loma Vista Records