Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney

BandPopAlternative

Sleater-Kinney is a three-piece rock and roll combo from the wilds of Portland, Oregon, made up of the dual and dueling guitars and voices of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and the insistent and inventive drumming of Janet Weiss.

Biography

They came from the Pacific Northwest! They were young, and they had things to say. At first, it appeared that the weaponry, the system, the strategy, consisted of a lead singer who had an uncanny urgency to her voice, more so than anyone since Patti Smith, enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. That was the first part of the weaponry, this lead singer, and the second part consisted of a remarkable chemistry between the two guitar players, viz. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. One guitar seemed on occasion to finish the other’s lines, and vice versa, as if they were performing the medieval form called the hocket. Initially, these were the strategies. It was urgent, it was fierce.

They came from the Pacific Northwest! The second album, Call the Doctor, did things that could not be done on the first. Suddenly there were two voices, not just the amazing lead singer. There was the second voice, with its urbane, sexy drawl, fitted exactly around the first in a kind of contrapuntal exercise that was precisely calibrated to what the guitars were already doing. The noise got noisier. Where the songs had orbited around a certain feminist rage on the eponymous first album, the message got deeper as the noise got noisier, especially on “I’m Not Waiting,” and “Good Things,” and “Taste Test.” Sleater-Kinney wasn’t waiting to make the transition from promising girls to women, they were taking, and they were allowed.

They came from the Pacific Northwest, but they were beginning to sound like they weren’t from a particular region, but maybe from the entire recent history of rock and roll. Dig Me Out, their first unremitting masterpiece, in which the tempos occasionally slowed, and the dynamics were more varied, all the better to allow the lead singer, Corin, to emerge from the howl somewhat, and for Carrie’s more vulnerable voice to be more melodious and frontal than before. Also: a not-to-be-underestimated strategic coup. New drummer! Whereas there had never been a problem with the prior drummer, Lora McFarlane, she did seem to be chasing after the songs sometimes, instead of leading them. Not so with the amazing new drummer Janet Weiss, whose virtuosity and ability to find room for fills anywhere is as admirable and satisfying as any drummer in the punk tradition, etc. Dig Me Out was friendlier, more intimate, but it wasn’t any less passionate. They may have come from the Pacific Northwest, but they weren’t going to be ghetto-ized there, in the hippie-friendly blue states.

The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One, the albums that followed in 1999 and 2000, consolidated the triumphs of Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out, and this is not a bad thing. The songwriting team revealed that it seemed to have an endless reservoir of those angular guitar riffs favored especially by Brownstein, guitar riffs that managed to sound both playful and funky, in the way that Pat Place’s guitar used to sound in the Bush Tetras. This is satisfying, to know that a certain way of playing has innumerable variations. There also began to appear on the horizon a certain devotion to the possibility of melody, hooks, and to the instrumental coloration and variation that might be brought into what is after all a rather simple ensemble (two guitars and drums, with the occasional bass part on the recordings), a tiny bit of piano here and there, maybe an organ part, etc. Of these two middle period recordings, All Hands… with its frank erotics, its laments about anorexia, and its tour-band laments, seemed the more satisfying, evincing particular continuity in the use of John Goodmanson as producer, who worked on all the band’s early albums except The Hot Rock.

Which brings us to the second masterpiece, One Beat, and the idea of a Sleater-Kinney television appearance. Or the idea of a Sleater-Kinney spot on some enormous world tour replete with buses and jets and roadies. Sleater-Kinney opening for that famous grunge band. Sleater-Kinney beginning to conceive of itself as a global organization, though remarking on this ambition is certainly to overlook the stunning array of styles and pop-music dexterity on One Beat, from Led Zep style riff-mongering on “Light Rail Coyote” (a song, it is pleasing to know, that is about exactly what it says it’s about), to the political consciousness of songs like “Far Away” and “Combat Rock,” the ersatz Motown of “Step Aside,” in which, e.g., the violence of the world outside, and the domestic responsibilities of motherhood vie with the horn section in one of the funkiest punk rock songs ever recorded. Everything on One Beat reflects the confidence of a band of adults playing music the way they want to. Carrie sounds like Cindy Wilson from the B-52s, or Lene Lovich, and her guitar playing uncannily mimics Peter Buck on Document-era R.E.M. There is wah-wah, there are synthesizers, there are sing-along choruses, there are hints of the blues, and, so I am told, they even started dancing o