Sleater-Kinney powerfully delivers ‘Live in Paris’
Adrian Mark Lore | Tuesday, February 7, 2017
While hosting the 40th season finale of “Saturday Night Live,” Louis C.K. joked in his opening monologue that, as a result of “mild racism” he developed as a child in the ’70s, he would be mildly amused to learn that a pizza place was run by four African-American women. Unless, he said, it were some type of novelty venue — “like that’s the whole point of the place.”
A similar prejudice plagues the music industry, but its expression is often more than mild. Still today, bands made up exclusively of women are treated like novelty side-shows, even after these same groups have lobbied ferociously against the use of “girl band” — a term laden with sexist connotations. They are treated, in C.K.’s self-aware language, as though their female identity is “the whole point” of their musical career.
Among the bands that emerged from the feminist punk movement rooted in Olympia, Washington, Sleater-Kinney became not only the most successful, but the most committed to subverting this gendered nomenclature. The group was the brainchild of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, two of the riot grrrl movement’s loudest voices; yet only through rejection of the “girl band” label that had once seemed empowering, they saw, could their music become as transcendent as they aspired.
As band-member Carrie Brownstein lucidly pointed out in her 2015 memoir, “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” the entire riot grrrl movement of the early ’90s was naively predicated on femininity. Though the movement’s goal was to challenge sexism both in the music industry and in society at large, the very allusion to womanhood in the movement’s name only drew greater attention to gender, underscoring biases rather than subverting them. It was a modern minstrelsy for radical feminism.
Given their political irreverence and unique voice — not to mention raw talent — it is no coincidence that Sleater-Kinney has become one of America’s finest and most prominent rock outfits in recent decades. The band remained massively influential even after a decade of hiatus following the 2005 record “The Woods.” With the release of “No Cities to Love” upon the group’s reunion in 2015, its members had issued an unnecessary reminder of their musical prowess and emotional power — nobody had forgotten.
Similarly, the trio’s latest record — and first live album — is a certified victory lap. “Live in Paris” is a visceral replay of late-career highlights performed at their bombastic best, and the record leaves nothing to be desired in that regard. With the inclusion of the anti-capitalist opener “Price Tag,” the consumerist indictment of “Entertain” and even the career-defining classic “Dig Me Out,” Sleater-Kinney demonstrates its ability to remain both empathetically approachable and politically fearsome.
In other important aspects, however, “Live in Paris” nearly misses the mark. For a band so aesthetically fixated on rawness and force, the live record feels surprisingly like a studio album, with a level of polish unusual for a live affair — especially for Sleater-Kinney. The inclusion of many post-hiatus hits most likely contributes to this sense, given that “No Cities to Love” is arguably the band’s most carefully engineered release.
Even the performance itself, while as powerful as the tracks performed, is also quite “by the book.” The businesslike way the group takes to the stage and blazes through the set-list with minimal audience engagement diminishes the impact of the experience — even for the remote listener — given that Sleater-Kinney’s music is so rooted in pathos. Raucous cheers between tracks feel almost like canned laughter as a result. While none of these three women speak French, one is left to wonder why, then, the band would decide upon this performance as the most representative and powerful of its post-hiatus shows.
Fortunately, the songs alone carry the group’s timeless force, and it is hard to feel dissatisfied overall. Sleater-Kinney’s music is so high-energy that even a tame performance blows the audience away, and on “Live in Paris” they demonstrate no differently.
Album: “Live in Paris”
Label: Sub Pop
Favorite Tracks: “What’s Mine Is Yours (Live),” “Price Tag (Live)”
If you like: Savages, Yo La Tengo, Tacocat