Northwest Beat: Sleater-Kinney – Little Rope
Olympia (now Portland-based) rockers Sleater-Kinney are back with another offering. Unlike their previous two releases, Little Rope gets loud. Pointed rage put this band on the map, and it seems like some of that is back after a sleepy indie-rock vacation. It feels mainstays Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein have conviction again.
In some ways this feels like a compilation album. All of the songs are new, but the sounds are largely familiar. It’s almost a walk through Sleater-Kinney’s evolving sound, all with a modern polish.
The one feature of Little Rope that makes it stand out from the rest of the band’s work is the pervasive grief that seeps out in the quieter spaces. Sleater-Kinney have never shied-away from discussing death and mortality, but previously those motifs have appeared in short bursts and single songs.
Little Rope is a whole album embracing the sorrow, then thrusting it away with violent outbursts. Moments of close-held sadness, moments of joyful clarity, and moments of explosive anger. It feels like the push and pull of processing a life-changing loss. And there’s a good reason for that. Partway through writing this album, Brownstein’s mother and stepfather were killed in a car crash in Italy. Tucker had to break the news to her.
Even with the emotional whiplash, this is Sleater-Kinney’s most complete work in three releases. Brownstein fell into her music to process, translating her grief into her guitar, and leaning on Tucker for vocals. Normally the two split those roles pretty evenly, but this record really focuses on Tucker’s voice and Brownstein’s 6-string. The lyrics are simultaneously tender and cutting. The instrumentation is more successfully adventurous than other recent works, making ample use of synths and a wide variety of distortion on the guitars and bass. That dynamic lends the album some cohesiveness and makes it feel markedly different from other Sleater-Kinney LPs.
This is by no means a perfect album. I find myself waiting through a few tracks instead of listening to them. The first half of Little Rope is especially scattered, meandering between grunge, dark synth-pop, and whatever Hunt You Down is. Strong lyrics are sometimes let down by underwhelming arrangements.
Luckily the second half is really solid. While each song does have an individual style, the tracks flow well and each one is engaging.
The band has somewhat revived itself since longtime drummer Janet Weiss left in 2019, but recent releases are not as consistently electrifying as earlier works.
There are still sparks of that brilliance, sometimes even a sustained flame. Little Rope may signify that Sleater-Kinney have found a good path after bushwhacking in a new direction.
Now let’s dive into some individual songs.
Six Mistakes is probably my favorite cut from Little Rope. Crazy guitar distortion brings chaotic noise-rock sound and the one line where it’s swapped out for clean piano is a really cool effect. Hard-driving drums march steadily forward and keep the energy up. The ultra-fuzzy guitar solos that devolve into nearly incoherent noise further amplify an already energetic track. It may be the best song from Sleater-Kinney in 8 years.
Don’t Feel Right starts off like a fun poppy track with sunny guitars and tongue-in-cheek lyrics hoping for better days. Immediately after the first verse the guitars switch into a minor key and play a much darker bridge into a poppy second verse. The chorus goes along with that darker sund. It’s a fun switch-up between happy dreams of the future, and the more realistic dim present. The lyrics also slowly transition from hopeful self-improvement to more cynical dwelling on the past. It’s a really solid and adventurous track.
Untidy Creature is one of the album’s singles. It’s also the last song on the record. The heavy, fuzzy guitars and an infectious chorus carry this track. The opening riff is somewhat generic and a bit boring but still fits the song. The verses and quiet segment after the first chorus drag the song down. They almost seem determined to suck energy out of the piece. Instead of adding dynamic range and a sense of anticipation, they just add an element of waiting for the interesting parts to happen. The soft segment would work after two choruses, but after just one it fall flat. The lyrics have incredibly strong conviction and are emotionally weighty.
“Looking at me like a problem to solve. Like an untidy creator that you can’t push around. You built a cage, but your measurement’s wrong. ‘Cause I’ll find a way and I’ll pick your lock.”
Unfortunately the lyrics are let down by the arrangement. That’s indicative of many other songs on the album.
Overall this album is definitely worth a listen, and you’ll likely find a new favorite or two.