Digging Out A 'Hot Rock'
By Gina Arnold for Metroactive
Sleater-Kinney knows that the best rock & roll is a way to rage about love
POSSIBLY THE ONE good thing about the Monica Lewinsky scandal is that it's taught America that there's such a thing as too much hype. The phrase "just spell my name right" has stopped being funny. Thanks to the profusion of media outlets and an explosion of celebrity culture, people are no longer so innocent that just hearing about something makes them like it.
Indeed, too much publicity makes some things seem suspect, whether it's an impeachment trial, a new soft drink or Sleater-Kinney, a band whose records are seldom played anywhere, but whose name has become ubiquitous in any discussion of late-'90s rock. I personally have long been turned off by the huge amount of press the band's first three records generated, especially since much of it was the kind of criticism that uses off-putting words like "dialectical," "visceral" and, worse of all, "postrock." If you read the admiring press clips closely, Sleater-Kinney starts to sound more like an ideological construct than a band.
Then I read an interview in which singer Corin Tucker said, "You can love rock & roll and also be enraged by it." So struck was I by the sheer intelligence of that comment--and by the way it encapsulated how I felt about the hype around Sleater-Kinney--that I finally gave the band my full attention. Love and rage, after all, are the beau ideals of rock & roll, and punk rock in particular. They are also the core text of Sleater-Kinney's work.
The bassless trio plays music that sounds strangely familiar to fans of mid-'80s bi-gender bands like Glass Eye, the Reivers and X. Sleater-Kinney's music involves the entwinement and interplay of both the guitars and the voices of Tucker and second guitarist Carrie Brownstein. The band's forte is lyrical evocation and dit-dot-dash guitar parts that are almost mathematical in their precision. You won't catch them toying around with either irony or corn, the twin curse of today's musical world. Sleater-Kinney is easily the least emotionally embarrassing band around.
The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars) is Sleater-Kinney's fourth album, and it is both more complex and more listenable than its first three. Tucker's Poly Styrenesque voice has a strident quality that is most often associated with Bikini Kill and the other riot grrrl bands.
The connection is not surprising, since Tucker's first band, Heavens to Betsy, was one of the core acts of that movement. But never does Sleater-Kinney sound forced, angry or sweet--the three words one most associates with all-women rock bands, and the three words that tend to hold women's music back from the kind of raw believability that characterizes more macho rock.
That's not to say that emotions aren't present in Sleater-Kinney's work. Although love is an oft-repeated theme ("Baby, don't you leave me, baby, don't you go," shrieks Tucker on the opening track, "Start Together"), liberty is an equally important theme--liberty of the brain from the thralldom of love.
"Fight for a strong heart," she sings on "The Size of Our Love," and it's excellent advice. When she yells, "Jump in, jump out," one assumes she means, "of love." On the title cut (which uses a jewelry heist as a metaphor for the duplicity of love), she sings, "I'm not the girl wanted/I'm not the one you'll keep," while in the background, Brownstein mutters over and over that "you want me to feel/counterfeit or real?"
On "A Quarter to Three," perhaps the record's most accomplished and melodic number, the background "Oohs!" and "Ahs!" faintly and surprisingly evoke the Pips, the Supremes and Chrissie Hynde's "Back on the Chain Gang."
MOST STARTLING of all is the single "Get Up," which quotes the Sonic Youth song "Song for Karen": "Goodbye, small hands, goodbye, small heart, goodbye, small head." When I queried the band about the genesis of this allusion, however, I was surprised to find Brownstein dismissive of the reference. She really seemed not to know the song in question. It's another reminder that, at age 24, Brownstein is a whole generation removed from a world that knows its Sonic Youth albums by heart.
To that generation (my generation), the visual image of bassist Kim Gordon--gaunt, blonde, aloof and, inevitably, married to the guitar player--was as good as it got, female-role-modelwise.
Sleater-Kinney was luckier, citing early run-ins with Heather Lewis of Beat Happening, Jean Smith of Mecca Normal and Kim Warnick of the Fastbacks as proof that, as Brownstein puts it, "there were women, very different women, making music. It just seemed so attainable to me."
Brownstein is quick to acknowledge that the attainability had to do with being caught up in a certain time and place: Olympia, Wash., birthplace, in the early '90s, of both Nirvana and the riot grrrl movement. The latter was a big influence on both Brownstein's and Tucker's first bands, and although the movement itself wound up somewhat discredited, or at least dismissed, it's eventual result has been bands like this one, and that's no small achievement.
Brownstein was certainly inspired by it. As a 17-year-old freshman at Western Washington University in Bellingham, with no access whatsoever to the beery, boy-ridden, garage-rock scene that emanates from that city, she began writing letters to riot grrrls in Olympia, eventually moving there.
"Olympia," she says, "is a very tight-knit community, very liberal-minded, anti-materialist, anti-corporate and very closely allied to Evergreen State [College]. If you go there," she adds--as she and Tucker did--"you come out much more dogmatic than you go in, because you've been given these tools and armed with a discourse which shapes your world."
Although the band actually began its recording career in Australia (where it was traveling after graduation), Sleater-Kinney was the obvious product of Olympia, and it didn't--or rather doesn't--sound much different from a number of other bands in the Portland-Oly/Chainsaw-Kill Rock Stars orbit. Just as Nirvana sounded like and yet better than so many of its peers--the Pixies, Mudhoney, Soul Asylum, Black Flag--so too did Sleater-Kinney rise, quite suddenly, above its roots.
THE ADDITION of drummer Janet Weiss, of the band Quasi, who replaced Lora McFarlane in 1996, served to make the band into a monstrously effective live entity, the kind that impresses even those hard-nosed indie-rock male audiences more attuned to the grosser exuberance of acts like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Murder City Devils and Girls Vs. Boys. To see Sleater-Kinney live is to love it, for it brings a new kind of dignity to the idea of an all-girl rock band.
Perhaps because it has spent a great deal of time on the road, Sleater-Kinney has, in the past two years, shot up over the heads of its compatriots. Its second album, Call the Doctor (which seems raw and sloppy compared to its next release, Dig Me Out, and positively impenetrable compared to the newest one) was ranked No. 3 of all American records released in 1996, right after Neil Young's.
The follow-up, 1997's Dig Me Out, did even better, despite the fact that, for all the praise, it's almost impossible to imagine most rock fans--particularly kids who like the body-whomping aspects of techno and hip-hop or, worse, sentimental ballads by No Doubt and Celine--"getting" stuff this atonal and complex.
There is, however, something intrinsically uplifting about the idea of a cute, confident, all-female power trio that rocks as hard--and says as much--as the Jam or the Who, and Sleater-Kinney is the fulfillment of that fantasy.
And as rock music in general moves farther and farther away from the DIY ideal of a three-piece punk sound and more into the heartless and soulless body-whomp of techno, a band as smart and as passionate as Sleater-Kinney sounds better and better.
"You know, you have to look for inspiration in the very boundaries of society," Brownstein says. "It's so hard to find good examples of art in the mainstream, and not everybody has access to those other examples. We just hope that we're pushing those boundaries a little bit."