There comes a moment for every band when releasing a live album just makes sense. Sometimes it’s to buy them time between studio records. Other times it’s essentially a greatest hits collection. And sometimes it’s because studio recordings don’t really do justice to what they do night after night.
Sleater-Kinney’s new release, Live in Paris isn’t any of these, and it’s also all three.
During their initial run, Sleater-Kinney released an album nearly every year: their first six came in a eight-year span. And since their return with No Cities to Love, the band’s remained busy, spending most of 2015 on the road, not to mention a solid chunk of last year, too. Squeezed into this is Carrie Brownstein’s work as an actress, both on Portlandia and Transparent, not to mention Janet Weiss and Corin Tucker’s personal lives. In so many words, they’re busy people.
Still, there’s been precious little of Sleater-Kinney as a live band released.
A few live cuts have emerged as b-sides and on the Songs for Cassavettes soundtrack, but they’re either too brief of poorly recorded and sometimes both. The soundtrack, for example, should be a look at them in their late-90s prime; instead it’s a distant, roomy sound which is sonically sub-bootleg. The b-sides from The Woods are nice, but only show a small fraction of what they’re capable of on any given night. Because at their best, they more than deserve the title Greil Marcus crowned them with: the best rock band on the planet.
Live in Paris remedies that.
Recorded on March 20, 2015, it’s so far the best example of them live on stage. Over 13 songs – about half of the actual night’s set – the band rips through material both new and old. It’s a generous selection of material, going all the way back to 1995’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and right up their newest record. For a band who’ve never issued a best-of, it’s a good way for new fans to get a little of everything all at once, although I’d still recommend all of their albums.
Throughout, the band sizzles, making their songs leap out of the speakers. Both Tucker and Brownstein’s guitars slash and intertwine, and there’s little ways they keep familiar tunes fresh. For example, they way they almost toss off the chorus of “Oh!” almost as an aside between riffs, or the crescendo of noise that starts “Dig Me Out.” At the same time, the new songs still sound almost unfamiliar: “A New Wave” lacks the same spark as their older material, but only when compared against them.
But the real MVP here is Janet Weiss, who’s always been their secret weapon.
Her drumming powers the band like a locomotive and comes through on this recording with a new clarity. Her snare cracks, the cymbals crash and her bass drum punches through; it comes through here in a way that none of their studio records have captured. When she kicks into overdrive, she explodes out of the speakers.
There are reservations, of course. It would’ve been nice to have more of this show, and it would’ve been nice to have included one of their covers, something they’ve regularly sprinkled on stage but never included on record.
And, according to the night’s actual setlist, the gig is presented out of order: it ended with two encores (confirmed by on-stage dialogue included on the album), but the show’s final song is actually halfway through, while the “encore” on the record flips the order they were played. It’s fine on record, although a little disorienting.
All in all, it’s a nice document of a band who are pretty damn good live.
One which manages to capture their energy while also showing a good cross-section of their back pages, so to speak. And it also buys them a little time between records: No Cities To Love came out about two years ago and there doesn’t seem to be anything new on the horizon. Indeed, it could even be a farewell present for people who may never see them live. Recommended for fans of the band and anyone who’s curious about what they’re like night after night.