Stark and Stephanie Zacharek for Salon
Jeff Stark and Stephanie Zacharek discuss the new album from Sleater-Kinney,
the band that wants to take over the freaking world.
Jeff Stark: Sleater-Kinney is rock's last great band.
That's sort of a bullshit sentence. I wrote it because reviews like
this, about bold, important rock bands, are supposed to have bold, declarative
openings. The lead is supposed to be forceful and opinionated, with a tone of
grand importance. I'm making, you know, a pronouncement.
But it's bullshit, really, because I'm sort of posturing, as if I'm the
first person to say that these three women from Olympia, Wash., represent a
sort of last-ditch effort to save a fading form that has been at the center of
nearly every positive cultural change in America for the past 50 years. As if.
And even if it were true, with all of the fanatic critical support the band
riles up, I'm just one more dork with bad posture and a word processor saying
the same thing as all of the other dorks. At this point, I'm even
But this is the occasion, and this is why I'm making absurd
pronouncements about rock bands: Sleater-Kinney has a new record. It's called
"All Hands on the Bad One." It's their fifth since 1995, and the third that
features Janet Weiss drumming behind singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and
Brownstein. It's great. There are a couple of moments -- the hand-grenaded
last 15 seconds of "Ironclad," singer-guitarist Tucker's wail on "Youth Decay"
-- that are as ferocious and powerful as the band, almost any band, have ever
recorded. That sounds a bit overwrought, but man, there's no other way to
convey the roar. It's a kick to the chest, a shot out of a cannon, a hit that
feels like a kiss. It's something violent and visceral and huge and all that's
good about rock.
Stephanie Zacharek: I'm all for bullshit sentences when they
speak the truth. What gets me about Sleater-Kinney, over and over again, is
how they're regenerative without being regurgitative. In songs like "Ironclad"
I can trace threads to Eddie Cochran and X-Ray Spex, and probably
dozens of performers before, between and afterward. One of the great problems
of life as I see it is that when you've been listening to (and loving) rock
'n' roll for a long time, at some point you're likely to come up totally bored
by everything, convinced that there's nothing new under the sun. And you don't
need to be a dork with bad posture and a word processor (Word processor? I
forget if that's a wind-up thing, or if you actually plug it into the wall) to
reach that saturation point.
I try hard to fight that, but with Sleater-Kinney I've never had
to fight it. I feel 20 years younger every time I put on a Sleater-Kinney
record. I can't think of any voice in modern pop music that compares to
Tucker's. And the funny thing is, with each successive record it actually
sounds better -- she's more and more in control, and her harmonies with Carrie
Brownstein just get sweeter and sweeter -- without necessarily sounding more
refined. In other words, she's finding ways to enrich her vocals without
completely stripping away the scraped-raw quality that was there at the
beginning. She's more in control of her vibrato, instead of sometimes almost
letting it run away with her. And Brownstein never ceases to amaze me, with
those pointed, finely formed little guitar motifs -- instead of being fancy
(and there are plenty of guitarists who are all flash and no feeling) she
always simply knows what to put where, a more rare skill by far.
Stark: I've always been impressed by the way Sleater-Kinney have
been able to find language for hoary ideas (not to mention a new way of
playing intertwining guitar lines against those back-and-forth vocals). For
example, there's that great line in the song "Dig Me Out" that goes, "I have
your heart, your holes." I always thought those words were an amazingly subtle
way for a woman to talk about a relationship with her female lover. And then
there was a line about "manufacturing hearts" that got right to the center of
two of Tucker's favorite topics: relationships and the nuts and bolts of the
industrial world. (On "Call the Doctor" , she wrote about medicine;
Out"  went to factories;
Hot Rock"  targeted computers.) I guess what I'm trying to get at is
that Tucker, who writes most of the songs, has never been particularly
obvious. That's a good thing.
Zacharek: No, she's hardly obvious at all. But I never feel that
she's willfully obscure. There's that line on the new album, "If you wanna
watch me chew/My teeth are cutting you out." Can't get more direct than that.
It's funny, though, I never would have made the
medicine/factories/computers parallel with those three other records. Now that
I think about it, I can see it. I think Tucker is fascinated by all
those things, though I never assigned those attributes to individual records.
For instance, there's that gorgeous song on "The Hot Rock," "The Size of Our
Love," about watching a loved one die.
Stark: But "All Hands on the Bad One" is flawed, too. There are a
couple of tracks that seem like bad songs for an all-female independent band
to be writing, and they're mostly songs about being an all-female band that
does things, you know, independently ("The Ballad of a Ladyman," "#1 Must
Have" and lines in "Milkshake and Honey" and "Male Model"). There are also
songs about fans, and being a fan, which are great, because they've done those
songs ever since "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," but bad because they say
things like, "This music gig doesn't pay that good/But the fans are all
right." For the first time, I'm kind of worried.
Worried, because the last record, "The Hot Rock," smoked but never
really caught fire. (The drums were buried and there were only two or three
songs -- "The End of You," "Burn, Don't Freeze" -- that had the magnitude of
any from their prior two records.) Worried, because I don't want
Sleater-Kinney to ever be complacent. I want them to lead, inspire, catalyze
the only thing that rock has left, which is the all-girl revolution that
and Bikini Kill, but never toppled the
Zacharek: Well, I'm older than you are, but even in my advanced
state of decrepitude I think there's time yet to topple the despot. And I
think it can be done by coming on like gangbusters -- as Sleater-Kinney do.
But I also think that there are benefits to plain, old-fashioned stealth. All
those crappy bands that make heaps of money -- Limp Bizkit,
Phish, No Doubt -- or even well-meaning bores like Jewel, or sincere,
flamboyant bores like
Tori Amos, I don't think any of them see Sleater-Kinney as a real threat,
even now, with all the praise the band have earned.