Kill Rock Stars
Some bands peak early. Their best work is in their first few albums. And everything that comes after fails to match the former levels of energy or creativity. At that point, such a band either breaks up; or loses key members, soldiering on to a dwindling audience; or, in the oddest trajectory of all, is jettisoned into superstardom. Defying all odds, there are countless bands in this category.
However, there are a very few bands who take the road less traveled- developing slowly; maturing as musicians over a longer period of time. They don’t record the same songs over and over. They progress. Sleater-Kinney most certainly fall into that category. Together for eight years, the band weathered early personnel changes, producing two albums: Sleater-Kinney in 1995 and the brilliant Call The Doctor in 1996: with the seminal underground hit, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” They toured relentlessly; a seemingly endless array of drummers, backing singer/guitarists (and chief songwriters) Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein- whose mutual love for Bikini Kill was a source of musical common ground when they met.
With Australian-born drummer Lora MacFarlane, the punk trio attained “Indie Darling” status through high-profile articles in the national press (Greil Marcus, of Rolling Stone fame, among their earliest fans, has written several high profile articles about the band, over the years); and further notoriety from being associated as part of the Riot Grrrl movement of the early and mid-’90s- as well as for their strong, often outspoken stances on political and social issues. Whatever their issues and stances, they were a good, smart, young rock ‘n’ roll band.
However, when Janet Weiss, the former drummer for Motorgoat, Quasi and Jr. High, joined Sleater-Kinney to record Dig Me Out, their first album for the Kill Rock Stars label (released in Spring of 1997), the band began to coalesce as a musical entity. This was not solely attributable to Weiss alone, who is widely regarded as one of the better drummers in the region (think Ringo Starr). Brownstein (a classically trained pianist and a student of linguistics) and Tucker have never stopped growing or improving as guitarists or vocalists or songwriters. At about this time, they stopped sounding so much like their influences, such as Bikini Kill or the Breeders, or Bratmobile, and started sounding more like themselves: an ever-evolving whole, greater than the sum of its parts.
The road has not always been a smooth one for Sleater-Kinney. As the band broadened its stylistic palette, some longtime fans felt that the trio had somehow betrayed the original values they purveyed in their earliest recordings. The band has wrestled with the issue of “selling out,” perhaps unnecessarily so, since Weiss joined the band. Her solid drumming helped to smooth some of the rough rhythmic edges the band previously occasionally exhibited- which, while endearing in their own way, constrained the sort of growth the band has obviously since sought to attain.
Their next album, Hot Rock, released in early 1999, was met with criticism from the press and public alike. That album, which the band had meant as a paean to their own sense of musical freedom, adventure and experimentation; and which found the band finally fully integrated and teeming with inspiration, was largely misinterpreted and misunderstood. They were accused of selling out and going “commercial.” Instead, they were simply becoming a tight, solid band: capable of executing increasingly complex and sophisticated compositions- which they were creating with growing consistency.
Perhaps as a reaction to that unexpected public response, the band did not falter nor alter their musical course one step, but continued to hold true to their artistic visions and ideals- which were clearly counter to the capitalist culture, and the “good ol’ boy” network of the whole rock ‘n’ roll , major label, corporate megastructure (which, by the way, is slowly strangling the thing which it claims to represent). They remained true to themselves, as musicians and as thinking human beings; releasing All Hands On The Bad One on Kill Rock Stars, in the Spring of 2000.
That record was not a concept album so much, as an album that subscribed to a concept. In an interview at the time, Corin Tucker elaborated, “[It] is kind about embracing “the bad one” inside you or evil, the whole idea of your worst impulses and looking at them and saying, ‘well, what can I do with those?’ And instead of banishing them, saying ‘Well, how can I channel those?’ I mean, that sounds really new agey, I know. But I think that when you’re a writer and you’re trying to think about characters, I think that definitely you can call upon ‘the bad one’ many times.” Brownstein added, “It… has to do with your relationship to evil and your relationship to the hypocrisy of forcing a morality on someone else, when you yourself are no better.”
While these are concepts not typically prevalent within the rock ‘n’ roll culture, Sleater-Kinney’s fans and critics responded to All Hands On The Bad One far more positively than to The Hot Rock. Though the band was not at all fond of the term, they had “matured.” Band members took that description to be cynical; to mean that because of their success and stature, they had somehow deserted their values- or had lost sight of them, at the very least.
But the true meaning “matured,” is meant, in this instance anyway, in the context of wisdom and insight, not in the context of a an abandonment of youthful idealism. If anything, those youthful ideals have become crystallized into adult beliefs for the members of Sleater-Kinney. While the expression of these beliefs may no longer radiate with the youthful exuberance the band once displayed, that energy has been transformed into an assured muscularity and an expansive depth of scope- which simply was not possible for the band in the earlier years.
The band toured extensively behind All Hands On The Bad One, through the year 2000. But, by the end of the year, Sleater-Kinney was ready for something they had never contemplated before: an extended layoff. The band pretty much took the year 2001 off., with the exception of an August show in Seattle where they shared the bill with Patti Smith. Around that time, Time Magazine (thanks to Greil Marcus) named them “America’s Best Rock Band,” and Carrie took an opportunity to act and collaborate in an experimental film, Group. Earlier in the year, in March, Corin gave birth to a son, Marshall Tucker Bangs. Later in the year, on September 11th, the entire nation was staggered by the tragic events in New York City.
The joys and upheavals of 2001 motivated Tucker and Brownstein to begin working toward their next album, collecting new songs and developing arrangements. The inspiration for their new material was of a more universal context, more mainstream than in any case in the past. The material was no less cerebral, no less anthemic, simply more accessible and more universal in it’s subject matter.
The resultant new album, One Beat, their sixth, and fourth produced by John Goodmanson (along with Call The Doctor, Dig Me Out, and All Hands…) is their most cohesive effort yet. Every song is imbued with power and gravity. Goodmanson helps the band to create majestically lush layers of guitars on nearly every song; guitars far more robust than ever before. This edition of Sleater-Kinney carries a very big musical stick
Similarly, on a visceral level anyway, in impact to Bruce Springsteen’s new album, The Rising, One Beat is rooted in catharsis and redemption. However, the Sleater-Kinney view bears a distinctively maternal focus. At the same time, the band still shoulders the staff in the march for political change, still rallying the troops; calling them to arms for a new age.
Musically, the band experiments as much as ever- here, paying tribute to many of their influences (in some cases, no doubt, unwittingly), while remaining absolutely true to their musical roots. At any given time, one can hear strains of Lena Lovich, Nina Hagan, Patti Smith, Elastica, Veruca Salt, the Breeders, Belly and Throwing Muses, Siouxie Sioux, Joan Jett, the Doors, even Jethro Tull; Tom Verlaine, Nirvana, Chrissie Hynde, Johnette Napolitano, Holly Vincent, Lush, the B-52s, Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons, Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin, Sinead O’Connor, Kate Bush, Alannis Morrisette and Melissa Etheridge (among countless others) filtering through Sleater-Kinney’s presentations, never in imitation, always in reverence, completely assimilated and fully recombined into something original and forthright, all their own.
The album contains twelve cuts, with an additional two provided on the EP that is included at retail with the package. The title track leads off the album, setting the scene, in a way- with Weiss providing a halting tom-driven beat, while Brownstein interjects a staccato guitar figure. Tucker bellows out the vocal, sounding a bit like Grace Slick in her prime with Jefferson Airplane, a bit like Sinead in one of her stormy periods. In essence, the song is an open letter to the powers that be about the generations behind them, and a subtler, subconscious plea to investigate the possibilities of nuclear fusion (as opposed to the sure-death of nuclear fission) as a power source. “Your word for me is fusion/But is real change an illusion/Could I turn this place all upside down/And shake you and your fossils out/If I’m to run the future/ You’ve got to let the old world go.” She punctuates this with an occasional little squeal of “oh oh,” reminiscent of Dale Bozzio from the New Wave, ‘80s band Missing Persons (she also sang on Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage trilogy).
One of the pivotal songs on the album, “Far Away,” follows. Over Brownstein’s whining guitar figure and Weiss’ thundering drums, Tucker registers her impressions of the events of September 11th, 2001, with a shocked calmness, ruminating on the crux of the problem. Brownstein and Weiss sing the chorus in unison “Standing here on a one way road/and I fall down/No other direction for this to go/So we fall down,” while Corin is screaming: “Why can’t I get along/Why cant I get along/Why can’t I get along with you?” Stunningly powerful.
As if to relieve the building tension, “Oh” could be about a mother/child relationship and unconditional love. Tucker sings in a clipped, sort of Valley Girl scouse “Nobody lingers like your hands on my heart/Nobody figures like you figured me out/I would be lying if I didn’t say to you/No one comes close/ So don’t worry, you got it!” Brownstein’s skittering guitar flourishes add depth to the arrangement. Seattle producer/musician Steve Fisk adds colorful synth lines to the chorus.
“The Remainder” starts off sounding a great deal like the Doors on “The Alabama Song” from their debut release, a lurching rhythm providing propulsion. Brownstein’s fiery guitar fills at the turns call to mind Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre, from around the Benefit/Aqualung period, while adding Leslie-like chortling effected phrases in other places. Cello, violin and Goodmanson’s e-bow interludes cast a harrowing dark nimbus over the chorus.
“Light Rail Coyote” is, on the surface, about the coyote that hopped a Max train a while back, but it convenes at the point where restless kids and lonely coyotes meet. Brownstein’s angular guitar lines skid across Weiss’ pummeling 3/4-time beat. Tucker’s powerful verses, redolent of Johnette Napolitano, Chrissie Hynde or Holly Vincent (whose great band of the ‘90s, the Oblivious, goes, sadly, unknown today) create a mood of yearning. A bubbling 4/4 chorus helps to briefly relieve the pressure, before returning to the 3/4 fusillade. Perhaps no better musical snapshot of Portland, Oregon exists in rock ‘n’ roll. “Oh dirty river. come let me in.”
The band heads in a Soul direction with “Step Aside,” calling to mind Annie Lennox on the Eurythmics’ “Sister’s Are Doing It For Themselves,” and subscribing to the notion, perhaps best expressed by an LA based musician named Tonio K.: who, in the song “Funky Western Civilization,” from his album Life In The Foodchain, released in 1978, perhaps put it best when he said, “They put Jesus on the cross/They put a hole in JFK/They put Hitler in the driver’s seat/And looked the other way/Now, they’ve got poison in the water/And the whole world in a trance/But just because we’re hypnotized/That don’t mean we can’t dance.”
The aforementioned, no doubt, had a subconscious effect on Sleater-Kinney when they penned (all three members contributed to the lyrics on this song) the lines, “
These times are troubled, these times are rough/There’s more to come, but you can’t give up/Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love.” Well, there you go.
Over Brownstein’s fuzzed out walking low-E string and her own four-on-the-floor rhythm guitar, Corin belts out a series of clever and incisive lyrics- “When I feel worn out, when I feel beaten/Like a used up shoe or a cake half-eaten/There’s only one way to keep on feeling/Move it up one time, in time.” As horns jump into the fray with liquid lines, Corin’s vocals intensify. Verse by verse, the intensity escalates. Then, in perfect Supremes-like call-and-response fashion, but saying things the Supremes could only dream of saying, Tucker sings “Janet, Carrie can you feel it?” trading lines with Carrie and Janet, singing in unison, who counter with “Knife through the heart of our exploitation.” Corin sings “Ladies, one time, can you hear it?” The ladies reply, “Disassemble your discrimination.” It is a new age indeed!
Again, Lena Lovich and Dale Bozzio come to mind on “Combat Rock.” With Steve Fisk’s whirling, sideways organ filigrees unwinding beneath Carrie’s lurching, Tull-like guitar pastiches, Weiss stomps out a lock-jawed, two-step jig and Tucker hiccups the vocals like a cockney protest singer, asking the musical question: “Where is the questioning, where is the protest song?/Since when is skepticism un-American?” Oi! Turning up the sarcasm to 11, she finishes by saying, “Show you love your country, go out and spend some cash/Red white blue hot pants, doing it for Uncle Sam.” Wow.
Over Brownstein’s early Edge-like guitar intro, “Oxygen” has an arrangement reminiscent of something from Boy-period U2; her overlaid basslike guitar lines driving the tune. At first, Tucker’s vocal approach is somewhat subdued through the first section, with a haunting melody wafting through. The second section features a great vocal interplay between Tucker and Brownstein, the two intricately interlace their vocal parts, alternating between foreground and background, with clever complexity. An aqueous bridge bubbles vibrantly for a brief passage, before returning to the original structure. However, Tucker’s riveting performance down the homestretch of this song is simply magnificent. Her phrasing of the lines “Take my strength out/But I’m not down/Write this reverse/I’m not down,” is absolutely remarkable. Empowering.
A tale of dysfunction and co-dependence, the musical foundation for “Funeral Song” lay in the Folk tradition, dating back to the middle ages and the Childe Rolande song cycles . “Stay away from the haunted heart/You swore to yourself that you’d make a new start/But you just love the demon with the poison dart.” Weiss’ ringing kick drum provides the bass tones in the verses. Sam Coombes of Quasi contributes a brief theramin solo in the middle section, slowly roaring into a Breeders-ish chorus.
Stephen Trask, composer/lyricist of Hedwig And the Angry Inch fame, contributes the first male vocal ever tracked on a Sleater-Kinney record on “Prisstina,” as well as an odd and eerie keyboard part. The lyric is the biography of a prim and proper, scholastic type who decides to join a different team after “passing a club with the music so loud.” It’s an entertaining little ditty, but not up to the level of the other songs on the album.
The final song, “Sympathy,” returns to the maternal concerns expressed earlier on, but these are even more direct and personal still, as Tucker exposes the profound and extreme emotions she experienced in giving birth to her son, nearly two months premature. Over a solitary slide-like electric blues guitar, Corin serves her sermon, incorporating gospel elements into her vocal delivery. The lyrics are utterly soul-wrenching, coming straight from the heart, with no illusions, no allusions and no bullshit.
“When the moment strikes/It takes you by surprise and/Leaves you naked in the face of death and life/There is no righteousness in your darkest moment/We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid of/And I’m so sorry for those who didn’t make it/And for the mommies who are left with their heart breaking/Search for meaning in sores/The sentences they might form/It’s the grammar of skin/Peel it back, let me in.” Moving, puissant and unyieldingly honest. A hymn to the greatest of apprehensions, the peerless joy of triumph and survival; amidst tremendous upheaval- the human spirit reduced to its prime number: three.
The two songs on the EP add to the overall effect of the dozen on the main disc. Over Weiss’ Keith Moon-like drum salvo, Corin focuses the vocal force of “Off With Your Head.” Organ flourishes and Brownstein’s meaty guitar riffs propelling a song with a strong, memorable chorus. “Lions And Tigers” is a Natalie Merchant inspired number, sincere and gently elegant.
Truly a Portland band for the first time, Sleater-Kinney have always worn their emotions on their sleeves as badges of honor. Here they prove to be as wise as they are spirited, as introspective as they are outspoken, as skilled as they are original. Few local bands, hell, few band anywhere, at any time, can claim such attributes. They just may be the best band in the world. They are certainly the most honest.
There are four other occasions when I have done it. The first time was in 1975, when Bruce Springsteen released his third album. Born To Run. I bought several copies of the album and gave it to my friends. Then again, early in 1979, I was feeling especially bad about the direction of the music business what with Disco and all, when I had the good fortune to see Elvis Costello and the Attractions, then an unknown band, play at a converted church in Eugene, in support of My Aim Is True. I immediately bought five copies of that album and gave them out to friends, my faith in rock ‘n’ roll revived.
Then, in 1980, Peter Gabriel released his breakthrough third album, the “drippy face album,” with Jerry Marrotta playing tom-heavy drums and no cymbals. I bought countless copies of that album. I kept three unopened (to this day) and gave out several to friends. Again in 1992, depressed about the fatuous nature of the rock business at the time, multiple copies of Nirvana’s Nevermind went out to friends and family.
At the turn of the decade, I had begun to think that my youthful enthusiasm for rock had at last, perhaps, finally subsided, once and for all- the dulling monotony of rap finally quelling the flame. The fiery desire to share music with my friends extinguished at last, like a brief candle.
For some time, I’d been hearing about a new Sleater-Kinney album coming in August. So, out of curiosity, I went to the Kill Rock Stars website to obtain any information regarding its pending release. I was surprised to find the twelve songs on the One Beat album available on streaming audio. I downloaded the album and listened to it repeatedly. On the release date of August 20th, I went to Tower Records and bought five copies, giving out three to friends, and have been listening to this copy. One copy remains unopened. I urge you to do the same.
Sleater-Kinney command attention with smart, highly-charged material, the product of thoughtful minds and passionate hearts. They have achieved success without sacrificing their values- and they deserve wealth and fame for their efforts. They are truly a great band and three, very talented women.