(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #71 – released August 20, 2002)
Track listing: One Beat / Far Away / Oh! / The Remainder / Light Rail Coyote / Step Aside / Combat Rock / O2 / Funeral Song / Prisstina / Hollywood Ending / Sympathy
Most bands would kill for as consistent a discography as Sleater-Kinney’s. A female punk trio formed in Olympia, Washington, they followed a tentative but intense 1995 self-titled debut with five solid albums in a row and at least three of them are back-to-front superb (the other two ain’t far behind.) Still, the conundrum with such consistency is that I’m uncertain I could write distinct, illuminating essays on more than one S-K album (let alone three.) Early on, I had picked for this project Dig Me Out (1997), the group’s third album. A considerable leap from their previous records, you can practically hear everything literally clicking into place, thanks partially to new powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss but also to the more confident and dynamic songs of vocalists/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein.
I then shifted my sights over to All Hands on the Bad One (2000), at times still my favorite S-K album primarily because it was the first one I heard (roughly a year after its release). Obviously, it was also the one I fell in love with, driving me to seek out their previous four albums (including 1999’s denser, thornier, dreamier The Hot Rock.) Although it encompassed influences ranging from the Ramones and riot grrl to post-punk like The Cure and other (slightly less caffeinated) indie rock such as Yo La Tengo, it felt brand-new to me at the time: no other trio, male or female, matched them in spiky guitar riffs, thunderous but lithe percussion and ingenuously intersecting, overlapping vocals (mixing Tucker’s singular, commanding caterwaul with Brownstein’s sweeter, brisker undercurrents.) From the irresistible pogo-pop of “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” to the shimmering acoustic balladry of “Leave You Behind”, it also amply showcased S-K’s ever-growing capabilities.
However, when the time came to write about All Hands… for this project, I again balked, deciding to address its follow-up instead. I’m not going to argue that One Beat is, full-stop, the essential S-K album, the one you most need to hear; Dig Me Out and All Hands… are honestly just as accomplished. Still, apart from its sonic diverseness and songwriters Corin and Carrie arguably at their melodic peaks, One Beat has other implications that render it the S-K album I most want to write about. Released in late summer of 2002, it’s as pure an afterimage of that strange, post-9/11, pre-Iraq War period in America that you’re gonna get outside Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising—in other words, it’s as explicitly political as S-K ever got, and you can’t help but notice how this enhances the urgency in their concise, energetic, cathartic and, best of all, LOUD rock and roll.
You sense it straightaway in the repetitive, start-and-stop martial drumbeat that kicks off the title track. It’s followed by a similarly-inclined guitar riff (probably from Carrie) before the arrival of Corin’s clipped, angry vocal, which “leads” the song but also perfectly melds with everything else. She sings of striving for unity in a world of chaos, looking to science for an explanation (“If you think like Thomas Edison / could you invent a world for me,”) only to admit, “You can’t predict everything with Newton-like certainty.” The song’ subtext of an altered, post-9/11 existence becomes the text of the next track, “Far Away”: it’s as taut and relentless, with Carrie delivering her best Jimmy Page impression as Corin recounts nursing her “baby on the couch” as she watches “the world explode in flames” on the other side of the country. “Don’t breathe / the air / today,” she wails in two-syllable increments as Carrie sings, at a lower register and a far more rapid pace, “Standing here on a one way road and I fall down,” the two eventually merging on the furious and pleading, “WHY CAN’T I GET ALONG WITH YOU?” (All caps indicated on the album’s lyric sheet.)
They reference the attacks again on “Combat Rock”, which not only alludes to The Clash album of that name but also the rock-reggae leanings of their sound circa then. A treatise on blind patriotism, you could call it one of the more strident songs in their catalog, taking on an easy target (“Hey look it’s time to pledge allegiance! / Oh god I love my dirty Uncle Sam.”) Still, you must remember how unpopular this opinion was at that exact time (think about what happened to The Dixie Chicks a year later)—the song hits hardest when at its most direct (“Since when is skepticism un-American?” is a still most relevant question at this writing.)
“Combat Rock” ends up a necessary protest song, but its immediate predecessor on One Beat is a transcendent one. Lyrically, “Step Aside” serves as a manifesto of what it’s like to be in a female punk trio as the world threatens to fall apart. More than that, it’s a call to solidarity just like the title track only with a clearer agenda that doesn’t pussyfoot around with metaphor or philosophical inquiry. “These times are troubled, these times are rough / there’s more to come but you can’t give up,” Corin sings before asking—nay, commanding listeners, “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?”, stressing the words “peace” and “love” with impassioned force. If that wasn’t irresistible enough, she proceeds to rouse her fellow band members (“JANET! / CARRIE! / CAN YOU HEAR IT?”) before concluding, “It’s not the time to just keep quiet!” Oh, and musically the song’s an unlikely, powerful punk/Motown hybrid, made flesh and blood when the surprise horn section appears at 0:48.
While the rest of One Beat is rarely so overtly political, for this band, the personal and the political are often indistinguishable. It’s most apparent on a song like “Light Rail Coyote”, a paean to all small town girls (and boys) seeking solace in the big city, together ultimately making the city what it is—the concluding cries of “Oh dirty river / come let me in,” are just as forceful and effective as the exhortations in “Step Aside”. One can also hear it in “02”, particularly the key phrase, “I want to run away,” that last syllable stretched over a few measures of the tune’s anthemic power-pop.
Lest one think that One Beat contains nothing but high-energy bangers (see “Hollywood Ending” whose wonderful descending guitar riff gathers momentum until everything tyrannically explodes at the end), the album’s midsection is a bit more varied. “The Remainder” keeps the band’s no-fat-or-flab instrumentation in check, subtly adding synths and strings while slowing down the tempo a notch. The Carrie-sung, nursery-rhyme simple “Funeral Song” alternates between plucky, stripped down verses and a bang-bang-bang full-throttle chorus (plus a Theremin solo!) that would play well at any club’s Goth night. These post-punk-isms reach full flower in “Prisstina”: co-written by Hedwig and The Angry Inch lyricist Stephen Trask (who also provides synth and backing vocals), it brushes against that Siouxsie Sioux/Robert Smith axis nicely without sounding too much like either artist (thanks mostly to Corin’s near-unrecognizable, low-pitched tone.)
And yet, S-K do what they do best in a more typical number like “Oh!” Kicking off with a massive Carrie guitar riff worthy of The B-52’s’ Ricky Wilson, it’s a glorious lust song, packed with surf rhythms, handclaps, call-and-response lyrics, “Be My Baby”-style drumrolls and best of all, Corin’s animated, elastic, ecstatic vocal (worthy of The B-52’s’ Cindy Wilson; as with Carrie’s guitar, it goes beyond pastiche.) Listen to how she sings, “Nobody lingers like / YOUR hands on MY heart!” on the chorus or, “It’s ALL in / my POCK-et! / I CALL it / my ROCK-et!” on the bridge and try not to fall in love with her no-holds-barred jubilation.
S-K have a penchant for tremendous album closers, and “Sympathy” doesn’t disappoint. A blues where Corin relates her child’s perilous, premature birth, it begins with just guitar, vocal and after the first twelve bars, some cowbell. She pleads as fervently as she did on “Step Aside” only the stakes are much higher, more immediate and potentially devastating as she sings, “I’d beg you on bended knees for him.” Then, Janet’s full drum-kit crunch accompanies Carrie’s countermelody (“I’ve got this curse on my tongue…”) as Corin lets loose with “Woo-hoo’s!” deliberately swiped from The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”. Everything reaches an expulsive boil at the bridge as Corin, line by line, bares the depths of her soul (along with exclamations of “HEY!” from her band.) “We’re all equal / in the face of what we’re most afraid of / and I’m so sorry / for those who didn’t make it,” she affirms—again, the personal is the political, and we’re all in this together, whether the threat to life and well-being is singular or widespread.
One Beat and “Sympathy” could’ve been perfect cappers to S-K’s career. Their next album, The Woods (2005) had its fans, but I found it awfully disappointing—a sludgefest that almost entirely replaced their tightly wound precision with blurred walls of sounds and meandering jams. Perhaps they realized it was a dead end, for they broke up a year later. After almost a decade of solo and side projects like Wild Flag and The Corin Tucker Band, not to mention Carrie’s unlikely emergence as a sketch comedy queen with Portlandia, they re-united with No Cities To Love (2015), another solid S-K album that sounded like but neither added to or detracted from that original five-record run. S-K will always come in at the top of any short list of great all-female bands, but when you consider their peak output, it’s clear they’re more accurately one the era’s best bands regardless of gender or genre.
Up next: Catharsis at a more personal level.