By Greil Marcus for Interview
WHEN A BAND IS MORE THAN A BAND
Without benefit of a major label, a three-woman Northwest punk band has achieved such currency that in a recent Saturday Night Live short, Ben Stiller could use them as a pickup line. Challenged by his bar buddies to test his I-can-snag-anyone rep on a bunch of NYU film students, Stiller sneers--just drop the names of a few Sleater-Kinney songs, he says, and he's home. Of course, anything cool enough to be used as an SNL punch line is almost certain to be cold as death by the time next year's class of film students comes along. You might have taken the Stiller number as proof that in the six years since its founding by guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (drummer Janet Weiss joined in 1995), Sleater-Kinney had used itself up. There was a hint of that on last year's The Hot Rock. The first number, "Start Together," had so much force it blew like a dragon's breath across the rest of the songs--at first. It was Sleater-Kinney as idea and form, but maybe too perfectly. Soon enough, uncharacteristically slow, moody, reflective, humorless pieces rose to the surface of the record and stayed there. There was a sense the women might not have much left to say to each other.
If you carry such an impression to All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney's fifth album and its third for the Olympia label Kill Rock Stars, the music will wipe it out. The songs are funny and playful--and, more than that, ferocious, unyielding, intransigent, anonymous. Corin Tucker has a huge voice, and in the past that's been her signature instrument, her weapon. Here she turns the damper down and toys with sarcasm and a femme fatale sigh--and you can't always tell if it's she or Brownstein who's shouting in your ear, hustling you out the door, shoving you into a car where they can crank up the volume and break the speed limit. They start in the middle of a storm they have themselves created, then go into a skid that doesn't end, unless it takes the songs right off a cliff--which doesn't end the songs either. You could imagine "Youth Decay" or "Was It a Lie?" or "Pompeii" taking place after Thelma and Louise drive into the air, with the music so full of momentum the car never drops to earth.
This is what, in Kief Hillsbery's first novel, War Boy (just published by Morrow), a fourteen-year-old runaway named Radboy sees in the band. He's deaf, and he doesn't talk. Music for him is all punk facts and legends and printed lyrics, but it's a frame of reference nonetheless--one he has never been able to quite pass through. But at a Tibetan Freedom benefit in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1996, he stands in front of the mostly ignored second stage where Sleater-Kinney is setting up: Since "the grrls in the group are rumored to be dykes I get my chance to suss out whether it's a lezzie band or not when this stagehand grrl dressed in slacks and a geoduck clam t-shirt walks by carrying a big stack of lyric sheets. I motion for one with a question in my eyes and she stops and hands it over.[ldots]I skim over the lyric sheet she gave me for juicy drippy lesbian love odes but don't find any." Then he sees the stagehand on the stage--with a guitar in her hands. "I get to watch her. She's the lead singer and it's like watching a volcano erupting and there's a fleeing villager inside me afraid of the lava but hypnotized by it too and waiting for the burn the steam the sizzle. Because I can read her lips enough to figure out which song is which and she's singing words that seem to be for me alone." You can hear all of this happen in "Youth Decay." You also sight the fleeing villager, inside the singers. You can't separate the humor shooting off the noise--the self-mocking, teasing, playground-chant vocals that without any warning turn a corner into a really bad neighborhood, a place you really don't want to be, a place where a dollar fifty and a sense of humor would get you on the subway if there were one. "Daddy says I've got my momma's mouth," Tucker shouts, and the line whips back in an instant memory, whips back much bigger, and you see the father approaching, no longer just making a bad joke but threatening, and you don't want to know what happens next, or rather you wouldn't if you could stop listening.