Album Review: Sleater-Kinney: Live in Paris (2017)

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Anyone who believes that rock music is a man’s man’s man’s world should pipe down and give this power trio a listen. Carrie Brownstein (guitar, vocals), Corin Tucker (guitar, extraordinary vocals), and Janet Weiss (drums impossible to ignore) don’t need a bass player because they create such an incendiary ruckus on their own. So incendiary in fact, and so consistent, that Greil Marcus famously labelled them ‘America’s Best Rock Band’ back in 2001. There’ll be no argument with that premise here.

They showed us better than any riot grrrl act of the 90s that punk and feminism were easy bedfellows, movements that struck out against outdated modes of thinking. Yet as forward-thinking as Sleater-Kinney undoubtedly were, they never denied themselves or, crucially, their audiences good old-fashioned rock n’ roll fun, even if it stemmed from classic male bands. That’s why ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ remains, to this day, their battle cry.

And the trio were never afraid to sing about relationship woes either. Real or fictitious, these added complexity to their albums and pushed up against the limits of their political ideology. How could they maintain a fiery independence within sexual/romantic liaisons that were sometimes with men? Relationships require compromise, and Sleater-Kinney were cunningly never hypocritical enough to ignore this fact – see also Beyoncé’s Lemonade (not that I believe for a second the Queen has ever listened to this band).

I have never had the luck of witnessing a Sleater-Kinney live performance, though I have it under good authority that they are every bit as transcendentally brilliant as their recorded output. So ever since its release I have been greedily absorbing every hook, shriek, and duelling guitar display of Live in Paris, their premiere concert recording. Everything I love about the band is duly present: the cathartic levels of rage, Tucker’s ability to curl her voice around an unexpected vocal even at full-pelt-scream, their ability to stretch out into soloing on ‘Entertain’ without descending into grandiose overstatement. And the way in which they top off 45 minutes of feral energy with a softly sung little folk-pop ditty? Just ace.

But a question still lingers: do we need this album? Ask such a thing of most live ‘opuses’, regardless of your level of obsession with the band, and the answer is usually no: it is practically impossible for tracks to match the precision of their studio counterparts. Why on earth would you choose Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! over Beggars Banquet or Let it Bleed, for instance? There are exceptions as always, particularly with the great jazz or rock improvisers, but for the most part I view live recordings as being safely dismissable from the canon.

Live in Paris is not strictly necessary either – there are no new songs here and none of the tracks present manage to outstrip the original. But I would hesitate to dismiss it from Sleater-Kinney’s canon: when they announce after several bashful ‘Mercis’ that they are about to perform a second encore at the end, and the Paris crowd goes wild, it struck me that this album is best looked at as an encore itself. In 2015 they surprised everyone by returning from a decade of solo projects to release an album as top-notch as any in their 90s-00s peak form, No Cities to Love, and with Live in Paris we hear them basking in the jubilation with which it was received by punk fans from all across the world.

It’s a statement of international unity at a time of great international peril. And I for one believe that Sleater-Kinney, who have found that there is a city to love after all, do very much deserve their encore.

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