As most Sleater-Kinney fans would be able to tell you, there wasn’t a massive amount of live material available from the band prior to their 2015 reunion.
There certainly wasn't anything official, atlthough bootlegs of varying quality could be found floating around on the internet if you looked hard enough. There were a handful of videos, too, including this pro-shot, but pretty scratchy footage from 2006’s Lollapalooza in Chicago, as well as the occasional performance plucked from U.S. TV. That’s about what you’d expect from a band who first called it quits in 2006, before YouTube had risen to true ubiquity.
That’s changed dramatically since the band hit the road again a couple of years ago; a quick search for ‘Sleater-Kinney live’ throws up a couple of full-length shows from Austin City Limits and NPR’s superlative Front Row, as well as in-studio sessions, cuts from individual festivals like last year’s Pitchfork, and a slew of fan-shot videos that, with the advancement of technology, are often plenty watchable, whatever the politics of filming on your phone at gigs might be.
All of which presents us with the question of whether live albums, which have been divisive as to their worth beyond fans-only territory for years, are slowly becoming less vital than ever. This live reviewer is an avowed fan of the format but you have to acknowledge that debate when the likes of NPR are filming concerts in their entirety, in high-definition with a professional sound mix, and making them available free of charge. The arguments for them continue to dwindle; yes, it’s nice to be able to pick them up on vinyl and yes, with the right track listings they can still be essential in their own rights, but recent examples of genuinely indispensable live records are few and far between.
As anybody who made it to a show on the No Cities to Love tour can attest, Sleater-Kinney circa 2015 were an incendiary enough live outfit to justify at least giving a release like this a go. In that respect, Live in Paris, cut at the city’s La Cigale in March of that year, excites and frustrates in equal measure. On the one hand, you’re never getting a mix of this quality on YouTube, and certainly not one presided over with a dab hand by John Goodmanson, who produced four of the band’s eight full-lengths to date. On the other, veterans of those gigs will take issue with the chosen tracks in places, which span the band’s catalogue - plus, wouldn’t it have made more sense to record a show from a bit deeper into the schedule than this one, to catch the band at their absolute tightest?
Either way, Live in Paris comes with a taut feel that belies its thirteen-track running length. Choice cuts from No Cities to Love seemed to have been plucked specifically for their urgency - simmering opener “Price Tag” and a never-more-danceable “Surface Envy” being cases in point - and the approach to the rest of the back catalogue follows a similar tack. 1997’s Dig Me Out was an almost exclusively breakneck affair, so it’s no surprise to see both the title track and “Turn It On” included, but more gripping still is “Start Together”, the opener from The Hot Rock that set the tone for that album’s nervy atmospherics and is even tenser in its live form, with Corin Tucker’s vocals battling hectic overlapping guitars for prominence. “Get Up”, another from that album that channels that sort of sensibility, was aired regularly on this tour and is a disappointing omission here.
A slew of live reviews from across the tour singled out The Woods singles “Entertain” and “Jumpers” as set highlights, and rightly so. They’re both included here, with Carrie Brownstein’s blistering vocal elevating the former above its studio counterpart, which was no slouch itself. The latter was always a slightly peculiar proposition - spinning a tale of the Golden Gate Bridge’s notoriety as a suicide hotspot with verses that sounded fraught and freewheeling guitar solos that expounded joy. The version included here is riotous; Janet Weiss' perennially-underrated work behind the kit is key.
Debate over the track listing will doubtless rage among the Kinney hardcore. “Modern Girl”, the closest thing the band have to singalong material, seems a peculiarly midtempo note on which to close out Live in Paris, and the lack of “Let’s Call It Love”, so monstrously epic at the dates it was aired on, makes you wonder whether recording a handful of shows was ever an option, just to provide the band with a bigger pool of songs to draw from.
There’s also the nagging feeling with any live record that the lack of visual element means you’re never quite going to capture the true energy of the show in question, and it seems no coincidence that the artwork has Brownstein tearing into one of her trademark stage moves front and centre. With its focus on covering most of the canon and the scintillating pace that it moves at, though, Live in Paris won’t just satiate the fans - it could well provide a new access point to one of the great American rock bands for those yet to be converted.