“World domination is what I want for Sleater-Kinney.” I am wont to believe Carrie Brownstein when the Sleater-Kinney guitarist, then 21, qualified this 1996 assertion by shrugging it off as a joke. She was, in all likelihood, alluding to the mainstream-affixed mantra of Seattle’s blown-up grunge scene, which her own band’s roots in the nearby punk-feminist community of Olympia opposed. Like Bikini Kill and Fugazi before them, Sleater-Kinney would never succumb to the beckoning of major labels. And in 1996, with their crass punk insurrectionism, the idea of mass success was laughable. Of course, Brownstein’s reputation for regional parody on “Portlandia” now precedes her. “We’re never going to be huge like Pearl Jam or something,” she said in that interview, “but I want more people to have access to our music, not just the geeky kids.” Seven years later, in 2003, during the beginnings of the Iraq War, Sleater-Kinney played its first of many arena-sized gigs that year—on tour with Pearl Jam.
From 1994 to 2006, Sleater-Kinney seemed to have it all. The trio of Brownstein, singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, and (from ’96 on) drummer Janet Weiss created and then fervently revised one of the most distinctive sounds in rock: The friction of their overlapping voices—Brownstein’s monotone speak-sing anchoring Tucker’s wild vibrato—had an ecstatic, unusual beauty. The expressive longing of Tucker’s alone was a gift, like Kathleen Hanna‘s hardcore holler aspiring to the quasi-operatics of Iron Maiden‘s Bruce Dickinson. Tucker is perhaps the first punk singer to attempt such a thing while worshipping the enormity of, say, Aretha Franklin, channeling lessons from the Queen of Soul into her own singing, holding onto moments for dear life and then projecting them to the heavens, becoming Queen of Rock.
In practice, Sleater-Kinney were humble, imageless indie-rockers; in song, they demanded icon status. This streamlined set, Start Together, captures that dichotomy, archiving the Sleater-Kinney canon with care: from the ideological-punches of thirdwave feminism to their post-riot grrrl classic rock revisionism, all seven albums have been remastered and paired with a plainly gorgeous hardcover photobook, as well as the surprise of a reunion-launching 7″ single. In all, Start Together tells the unlikely story of how this band carried the wildfire of ’90s Oly-punk to pastures of more ambitious musicality—a decade that moves from caterwauling shrieks to glowing lyricism, from barebones snark to Zep-length improv, from personal-political to outright (left) political.
Sleater-Kinney was consciously about rock’n’roll. Lou Reed sang for Jenny whose life was saved by rock; Ramones told us how Sheena became a punk. In 1994 there was no shortage of women plugging in—newly born classics included Hole‘s Live Through This, Liz Phair‘s Exile in Guyville, PJ Harvey‘s Rid of Me, the Breeders‘ Last Splash—but the lineage of larger-than-life stars, the deified behind-the-head-shredders, still had few instances of women delivering rock-as-saviour meta-narratives themselves. Sleater-Kinney turned the machismo of hippie-blooded ’60s and ’70s rock on its head: covers of Springsteen and CCR, homages to Kinks and the Clash, Brownstein’s Pete Townsend windmills and shin-kicking swagger, Tucker’s defiant declaration that “I make rock’n’roll!” A life-or-death seriousness is omnipresent with Sleater-Kinney, but they never rejected rock’s base desires—sex, dancing, proverbial milkshakes—although sometimes they vaguely mocked them. Sleater-Kinney stole from men what men had in turn stolen from the margins: electrified blues that all still made girls scream.
The first Sleater-Kinney practice was in March of 1994. It was the spring that Kurt Cobain died. Hindsight paints it clear: Cobain’s desire for a future-rock made by women dispersed into the universe. Brownstein and Tucker did Sleater-Kinney as a side-project to their respective bands, the queercore power-chord screams of Excuse 17 and soul-baring punk of Heavens to Besty. Sleater-Kinney fused these politicized sounds, but as they grew—with affection for B-52’s shimmy and Sonic Youth cool—they never let the punk rulebook limit their vision. Riot grrrl was fragmenting and they learned from its successes and failures—a radical streak pervaded their writerly Hüsker Dü-type storytelling—but they also fought to not be removed from the context of their foundation. The wiry blast of 1995’s Sleater-Kinney is as good an indicator of Bikini Kill’s influence as any feminist album since, echoing their sound as well as an interest in making punk become activism.
The debut is foremost a rejection of heteronormative sex, as Tucker and Brownstein were reckoning with life inside their bodies as women who approached sexuality fluidly. There’s a song about how much sucking dick sucks, called “How to Play Dead”—it began Sleater-Kinney’s mission of showing how society can silence women and minimize their problems. The urgency is real; all of Sleater-Kinney was scrappily-recorded in one night, on a trip to Australia, where they enlisted drummer Lora MacFarlane, who also kept-time on 1996’s Call the Doctor. “A Real Man” is like an incendiary take on classic feminist text The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm: “Don’t you wanna feel it inside/ They say that it feels so nice,” Tucker gasps with visceral sarcasm. Call it clit-rock, I guess; over hard-style riffs, Tucker makes it clear she won’t wait “to cum every time.” Amid this whirlwind of pleasure and pain, which occasionally veers towards emo, Brownstein and Tucker’s whispers erupt on “The Day I Went Away”, one of two wistful songs that foreshadow Sleater-Kinney’s impending greatness.
Sleater-Kinney continued feeding its appetite for destruction of archetypes on 1996’s Call the Doctor. It improved their raw punk convictions in every way: more complex guitarwork, more distortion to intellectualize, more aggression and profound sadness. “Why do good things never wanna stay?” Tucker asks on “Good Things”, an earnest stomach-twister of a teardrop tune, while the dire “Anonymous” wonders why its female protagonist is voluntarily unspoken. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” uses tradition to infiltrate and subvert—the riff could be Ramones pushing Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” into the red—to cleverly protest the worship of male icons and spur revolution: “I wanna be your Joey Ramone/ Pictures of me on your bedroom door/ Invite you back after the show/ I’m the queen of rock and roll.” It’s a two-and-half-minute rock’n’roll joyride deserving of a gender studies thesis.
Tucker’s fierce and vulnerable depictions of unconventional love marked the title track, where the dueling vocals first exploded. “It felt like something had opened up,” Brownstein told Rolling Stone. “We just stopped. And [Corin] was like, ‘This is so awesome, you have to keep doing that.’ It felt like I had fused with her. This bolt of lightning had gone from my chest to hers.” Call the Doctor landed at number three on The Village Voice’s then-influential critic’s poll. Their label, Chainsaw, couldn’t press copies fast enough.
Then, behold: Janet Weiss. She joined on 1997’s breakneck Dig Me Out, an all-time great American punk statement, giving Sleater-Kinney the most crucial muscle a drummer can offer: not sheer force, but heart, taking the momentum to a new plane. Sleater-Kinney released their next four records with the larger Olympia feminist label, Kill Rock Stars, but none distilled the band’s sound and attitude like Dig Me Out: sometimes brutal heartache, sometimes a menacing threat, always intelligent and extreme, there are enough hooks architected into these two- and three-minute songs to span several albums, but even the added dum-de-dum sugar seems as though it must be raw Portland agave.
“Little Babies” critiques stereotypes of motherhood, “Heart Factory” roars over synthetic emotions of the Prozac Nation, and the instantly classic “Words and Guitars” is an ode to rock that just feels necessary. At the peak of “The Drama You’ve Been Craving”—Tucker’s “Kick it OUT!“—there are practically fireworks bursting on either side. Really, Dig goes from 0-to-100 within seconds of its opening salvo of a title track, which begs for transcendence from worldly oppression, “Outta this mess/ Outta my head.” Unlike so much in the trajectory of punk, there is no nihilistic self-destruction in the face of chaos. More than skepticism, anti-consumerism, or the glories of tattoo art, punk teaches empathy, a principle Sleater-Kinney practiced with nuance. This is why Sleater-Kinney’s music shines a light despite its loudness, why it is easy to be alone with the songs and feel protected. Sleater-Kinney would never forego the optimism to believe their songbook could make us smarter, angrier, more tender and hopeful. Dig Me Out dreams of a better future, clawing itself up with every note.
The highlight of Dig Me Out and Sleater-Kinney’s career, “One More Hour” is one of the most devastating break-up songs in rock. “Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes,” Tucker and Brownstein quaver in unison—the song is about their own short-lived romance—and the way Tucker extends the last word, it is like she can’t let them go. There are complex feelings near clear ones, which is what break-ups are: someone wants to untangle the mess, someone wants to snip it apart. “I needed it,” Tucker howls, hardly distinguishing where one word ends and another begins. “One More Hour” is sublime sadness, a kind one can only know when staring at the end of something and wanting desperately for it not to be so.
This feeling would root 1999’s atmospheric The Hot Rock: subdued and spiritual, it served a number of firsts for Sleater-Kinney, among them a slot on the Billboard charts (at 181). Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss had never sounded so introspective, existential, and dark, so aesthetically poetic and conventionally pretty. The album’s interlocking parts were influenced by the gentle alterna-pop of Go-Betweens and Yo La Tengo; voices intertwine gracefully, as if braiding together dreams and wounds. It’s the Sleater-Kinney record you’re most likely to play on a train while gazing out the window and getting lost in thought.
Brownstein and Tucker sang of personal becoming, the uncertainties of adulthood, dying relationships and technological paranoia—it was, after all, the year before tin-foil Y2K Bugs would signal the end civilization—sometimes with abstract metaphors. The jaw-dropping despair of Brownstein’s wearied ballad “The Size of Our Love” has a lonely ambience, a love-story plaintively set between hospital walls: “The ring on my finger/ So tight it turns blue,” she sings over a crying viola. “A constant reminder/ I’ll die in this room/ If you die in this room.” It’s unsurprising that Brownstein has since catapulted her storylines to a mass scale: Comedians are professionals at manipulating our emotions, and if it is one’s intention to make people laugh, it must help to have mastered the ability to make them cry.
The sun, ocean, and cosmos build the imagistic single, “Get Up”. A staccato riff quilts the emphatic drumming, and the guitar tones are magic—had the band not called those natural elements out, it’s evident that “Get Up” absorbed their expanses. Tucker’s hovering speak-sing evokes Kim Gordon beaming down from an imagined heaven on Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)”. Echoing Patti Smith as well, Tucker’s words fly into the air as if given wings—”Goodbye small hands/ Goodbye small heart/ Goodbye small head”—zen-like as she watches her body go, “like a whole bucket of stars dumped into the universe.” Sleater-Kinney didn’t necessarily follow their ’60s rock predecessors into ashram training, but this reflects the Eastern belief that when you die, you become a part of nature. Tucker works through primal desires—”Do you think I’m an animal? Am I not?”—and despite the textured makeover, The Hot Rock emerges as one of Sleater-Kinney’s heaviest records.
Swinging back to capital-R Rock, 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One was Sleater-Kinney’s most straight-ahead arbiter of thirdwave feminism and also, surprisingly, their most jovial record. Sing-song guitar-pop turned up alongside plainspoken take-downs of sexism in music, and hints of new wave, girl-groups and Go-Gos mixed (cohesively, too) with some of their hardest whiplash-rippers. The enormously hooky “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” taunts dry girl-averse indie snobs: “You’re no rock’n’roll fun/ Like a piece of art that no one can touch!” the trio sang together, throwing “whiskey drinks and chocolate bars” at these guys to shake up the mood, ’cause why not? When Sleater-Kinney note how “the best man won’t hang out with the girl BAA-AAND!” we’re only left wondering why he’d pass on such fun.
Similar humor plays out on “Milkshake n’ Honey”, a Spinal Tap-esque wink at the debauched rocker/groupie complex, but the incisive messages make the best songs: “The Professional” uses charged surf-punk to condemn the marginalizing of women in music, “Male Model” dismantles the sexist canon and rejects investigations of women’s authenticity. A lyrics sheet proves Bad One is Sleater-Kinney’s most direct sloganeering, but it doesn’t come off as such; Tucker’s ferocity and Brownstein’s French-sung interjections make it cool, even. “#1 Must Have” is the centerpiece, in which Tucker dissects the commodification of riot grrrl and—in light of the rapes at Woodstock in ’99—powerfully asserts, “The number one must-have/ Is that we are safe.” The song’s lasting relevance can’t be overstated.
The world was irreversibly changed by the time of 2002’s One Beat, Sleater-Kinney’s weightiest record. Adventuring with math rock and stomping horns, it was their most explicitly political album, grappling with the aftermath of 9/11 on “Far Away” and “Combat Rock”. These songs reflected the national headspace as selflessly as any act of using someone’s tragedy for art allows. Tucker questioned the all-or-nothing patriotism sweeping the U.S., and detailed her own experience that day with raw catharsis, calling-out the hidden President Bush, honoring those who served, and striving for a glimmer of kindness: “I look to the sky/ And ask it not to rain.” One Beat was not all war songs—the bouncy organ-led love-anthem “Oh!” had glammy inflections, “Prisstina” chronicled an outcast’s discovery of rock. The closer, “Sympathy”, rips instrumentation from “Sympathy for the Devil” but inverts its theme, a prayer for the life of Tucker’s premature-born child: “There is no righteousness in your darkest moment,” Tucker belts, “We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid.”
Even the scope of One Beat couldn’t predict Sleater-Kinney’s monstrous phase-one farewell, 2005’s The Woods. The band’s appeal had become that of the indie rock mainstream, and a suburban high-schooler (such as myself, then) could readily learn of The Woods‘ greatness from the same weirdo dude-friends who repped new CDs by Queens of the Stone Age, the White Stripes, and Wilco (like I did). Sleater-Kinney had just played arenas with Pearl Jam, bending notes into heavier, looser sounds, when they journeyed upstate New York to track The Woods with producer David Fridmann, himself only two years removed from helping turn Flaming Lips’ 2002 opus Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots into a wider breakout.
When your best work is also your most uncompromising and unintelligible, you have accomplished a considerable artistic feat—this was the The Woods. It was tracked live with more distortion than usual, giving it a freneticism, a deranged euphoria. “[Friddman would] say things to Janet like, ‘Play like Keith Moon, but Keith Moon with a blanket coming down over him,'” Tucker said. That possessed orchestra-of-rhythm translated. The album’s heaving 11-minute mega-solo, “Let’s Call It Love”, and the soulful echo “Night Light”, comprise a grandiose jam colored in Deep Purple. Zep riffs abound. “Entertain” is an atypical military march, declaring war on hollow retro rock; its “woah-oh-ohs” are more like shields than exaltations. “You come around looking 1984/ You’re such a bore, 1984/ Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore”—Brownstein’s Orwellian invocation opposes this music with a far more poetic dismissal than “Fuck Interpol.” Sleater-Kinney’s first six records gave a lens through which we might imagine a feminist rewrite of classic rock; The Woods is a front-row seat.
“Jumpers” was inspired by a New Yorker piece on suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge—”the intensity of feeling that you can’t find meaning in your life, so you need to find meaning in your death,” Brownstein said—which oddly befit the band’s decision to end on top. “Modern Girl” is Sleater-Kinney’s most timeless song, impressionistic as closing one’s eyes and staring at the brightest star: “My whole life was like a picture of a sunny day,” Brownstein sings, like Sleater-Kinney’s “Yesterday”. But embedded in the soft twinkle is a critique of the consumer culture Sleater-Kinney resisted. (They despised the new proposition of a career-shifting iPod commercial.) The band stopped just as independent music was becoming more financially significant—2004 was the year future indie-Grammy-holders Arcade Fire landed—but traditional notions of integrity were also growing complicated. Brownstein was strangely prophetic: “I took my money/ And bought me a TV/ TV brings me closer to the world.” This is music you make when you can sense it’s one more hour ’til the walls close in.
Little is concrete in rock’n’roll—at the very least, its pivotal moments have often been shrouded in discrepancy and myth. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first guitar hero; no, Robert Johnson. Pete Townsend’s guitar-smashing was auto-destructive art; no, Townsend’s wrecked guitar was privilege. Elvis is dead; Elvis is in Las Vegas. Punk started in London—no, New York—girls started punk rock, not England. But there are unequivocal truths of Sleater-Kinney’s career. Objectively, the trio was born of riot grrrl, an underground band that started with two girls together in a living room and became the movement’s greatest critical success and so much more: an initial seven-album streak worthy of setting in stone eternal. There is an overcast art-print that accompanies Start Together, set at a weathered race track: Tucker is pounding pavement with a raised fist, Weiss is caught in a fierce skip, and Brownstein, in the middle, has both arms extended skyward, cracking a smile as if she just crushed a marathon. In reality, the band was only just beginning. Sleater-Kinney look invincible there, triumphant even, like superheroes, and if Start Together proves a thing, it is that with passion, persistence, and unwavering purpose, ordinary people can become them.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1oA8wFv