Sleater-Kinney

TrackAlbum
I Wanna Be Your Joey RamoneCall The Doctor
Little BabiesDig Me Out
One More HourDig Me Out
Get UpThe Hot Rock
You're No Rock 'n' Roll FunAll Hands On The Bad One
Leave You BehindAll Hands On The Bad One
Oh!One Beat
A New WaveNo Cities To Love
Hurry On HomeThe Center Won't Hold
Worry With YouPath Of Wellness

Sleater-Kinney photo 1

Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker (l-r)
(photo Anthony Pidgeon)

 

 

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Sleater-Kinney playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Olympia, Washington-(later Portland-)based post-punkers Sleater-Kinney both define and transcend the early 90s Riot Grrrl movement – unabashedly punk rock, proudly feminist and queer-friendly – yet willing to embrace classic rock traditions, at least as interested in establishing their guitar-goddess bona fides as in making bold statements.

Their rise to the top of the indie rock hierarchy came without sacrificing artistic vision; while there are hooks to be found, and plenty of shout-along fist-pumping choruses, few songs in their catalog stray into simple pop. And some of the more confrontational components of their sound, from Corin Tucker’s bracing wail to the treble-heavy twin-guitar (and bass-free) musical attack, assure that their music stays out of reach of tamer alt.rock denizens.

The band began as a super-grrl-group of sorts. Corin Tucker had been singer/guitarist for Heavens To Betsy, while Carrie Brownstein got her start with Excuse 17. The joinder of Tucker and Brownstein distilled the best of both bands. Tucker’s wail was a force to be reckoned with (though not enough to sustain Heavens’ more turgid, abrasive songs); Brownstein’s singing was more restrained, but Excuse’s riff-oriented, dual-vocal punk offered a stylistic blueprint for Sleater-Kinney.

Their 1995 self-titled debut (with Lora Macfarlane on drums) was a Ramones-styled blast of aggression, 10 songs in under 25 minutes, Tucker and Brownstein exploring each other’s contours both vocally and on guitar. It’s pure punk and undeniably exciting, though only a couple songs, like the boisterous How To Play Dead, evince their future staying power.

The following year’s Call The Doctor didn’t stray far from the debut, but smoothed out some of the rougher edges without losing the energy level. It also showed some improvement in songwriting, most notably on the instant anthem I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. It’s certainly ballsy for a start-up regional punk band to claim the mantle of Ramone (and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore), gender be damned, but the song readily skyrockets them into that rarified stratosphere, the slow-burning verses breaking out into the traded chorus shouts that immediately establish the band’s top-tier cred. Meanwhile, the tightly coiled verses and earworm chorus of Stay Where You Are provide the best indication of where the band was headed.

It all gelled on their third album, 1997’s Dig Me Out, a relentless barrage of high energy tracks with incisive hooks. Two factors spurred the enormous leap forward: Tucker & Brownstein’s growing confidence as songwriters and performers; and the addition of new drummer Janet Weiss, a muscular powerhouse quickly establishing herself as indie rock’s John Bonham, propulsive yet playful. The opening title track is one of rock’s great holy fuck moments, the two shredding guitars, Weiss’s rolling toms, and Tucker’s wail all competing for dominance. With so many great tunes – Words And Guitar is another thrilling blast – it’s tough to winnow it down for Toppermost purposes. But for me the clear stand-out is Little Babies, the band venturing into power pop territory with ridiculously catchy hooks and enticing call-and-response vocals. It’s not just arguably the band’s most entertaining song, but one of the most memorable songs of the decade. And then of course there’s One More Hour. It’s as close as the band had come yet to a ballad (while still rocking); but it’s also an emotional gut-punch, a devastating break-up song (possibly stemming from Tucker/Brownstein’s brief relationship), the twin-crooned “Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes” absolutely stunning.

The next few albums that followed Dig Me Out pretty much stuck to the formula, no radical departures but a steady flow of great new songs added to the catalog. The immediate follow-up, 1999’s The Hot Rock, is a worthy sequel, with its own fair share of stand-outs. Start Together is a riveting rocker that picks up right where the last album left off. A few of the best songs sound like conversations between Tucker and Brownstein to which we are lucky to be privy, most notably Banned From The End Of The World and Don’t Freeze. I find it impossible to pick a favorite from the album, but let’s just go with Get Up, another one that sounds almost like a spoken-word dialogue between the pair, yet with some unabashedly pretty vocals in the chorus.

The band greeted the new millennium with All Hands On The Bad One, a similar effort given a bit more studio punch, with greater reliance on traditional classic rock hooks. You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun is almost straight pop, the band proving they could write an alt.rock radio-ready hit if they felt like it, with some dynamite harmonies to boot. The album also includes the band’s prettiest ballad to date, the soaring, stunning Leave You Behind (again, those gorgeous harmonies!) making you forget for a moment that this is an edgy punk band.

Finally, 2002’s One Beat took the band’s distinctive sound about as far as it could, sonically similar to its predecessors but musically running out of steam. The band’s dynamic interplay remained compelling, but the hooks were a little more sparse this time. Still, they managed another fun pop-ish song, the buoyant Oh! making up in tunefulness what it may lack in gravitas. There are other winners here, like the rollicking O2 and punchy Combat Rock, but it wasn’t shocking the band took a bit of a break after this one.

When the band returned for 2005’s The Woods, they had made some significant changes. After a number of records on the indie Kill Rock Stars label, they joined the more major-label Sub Pop stable. Dave Fridmann (of Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev fame) produced. And the sound got BIG. The sparse punk trio sounded heavy – still the same twin-guitar and pummeling drum sound, but with everything amped up to 11. A lot of fans and critics loved it; but its absence from my Top 10 above shows my personal ambivalence. Certainly, there are some great songs: I like the loping Wilderness, and the playful Rollercoaster. But I also miss the more straightforward hooks, as some of this sounds almost prog-like in its complexity. It’s a good album, but a little exhausting.

The band may have been exhausted as well, entering a decade-long hiatus. Which isn’t to say they took any time off. Brownstein probably had the most noteworthy interim career, showing her comedy chops by teaming up with SNL’s Fred Armisen for the long-running sketch show Portlandia (along with some other acting gigs). She also (alongside Weiss) played in the short-lived indie super-group Wild Flag, teaming up with Helium’s Mary Timony and the Minders’ Rebecca Cole for 2011’s surprisingly solid self-titled album.

Tucker started a family and released some solo albums, while also playing briefly with the odd garage band Cadallaca. And like Brownstein, she later served some super-group time, releasing a few albums with Filthy Friends (which included, among others, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5 frontman Scott McCaughey).

And Weiss played drums for … well, seemingly everyone (including a brief tenure in Stephen Malkmus’s post-Pavement band the Jicks).

The three women finally regrouped for 2015’s No Cities To Love, sounding invigorated and picking up pretty much exactly where they’d left off. Like The Woods, it’s a dense, heavy album, more hard rock than punk rock. But the songs are a little more concise and catchy than on the predecessor. The frenetic A New Wave is the closest thing to a throwback to their 1990s glory days, a slithering riff cutting loose into an infectious chorus. The pulsing groove of Bury Our Friends, another stand-out, calls to mind indie rockers like Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse, but remains uniquely Sleater-Kinney.

The band took their time before releasing another album, and when they emerged four years later with 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold, it represented a dramatic, unexpected change in direction. Produced by versatile alt.rocker St. Vincent, the album introduced electronic beats and studio shimmer to the mix, sounding better-suited to techno-blaring nightclubs than the punk dives where they’d started out. The trademark guitar duels take a back seat to synths, and Brownstein’s croon dominates over Tucker’s wail. But once you get over the whole new vibe, it’s not a bad album at all, just one that takes some getting used to. The single Hurry On Home is impressive, a dark, propulsive bass and drums groove (and more guitar-driven vibe than much of the album) underlying obsessive lust. And the dance-oriented Love is great fun. Sadly, the band’s new sound turned off some fans … and apparently drummer Weiss, who announced her departure shortly before its release.

The band soldiered on as a duo, releasing the aptly-titled post-Covid Path Of Wellness in mid-2021. And while some of the studio trickery of the St. Vincent-helmed Center remained, the album represented a return to guitar-oriented rock. But rather than revisiting their post-punk roots, Wellness feels like the work of a band unafraid to embrace classic rock, with some relatively straightforward rockers (but without the heavy-handedness of The Woods). Lead-off single Worry With You blends the band’s trademark twin-guitar sound with a melodic chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on mid-70s classic rock radio (ditto the fine High In The Grass), more Heart than Bikini Kill. (This may follow from Brownstein’s current plans to write and direct a Heart biopic.) The absence of the inimitable Weiss is obviously a liability (a few guest drummers fill in), but it does give the band some room to change up the percussion, most notably on the intricate title track. It’s still new to me, but based on a couple spins it could be their most consistent release since 2000’s All Hands, boding well for the future.

 

 

Sleater-Kinney photo 2
(photo Karen Murphy)

 

“Tucker and Brownstein are two of the coolest, most complex women in rock. Imagine Killing Eve in audio form. They’re still that kick-ass. That sexy. That much fun. Put this album on your to-listen list, pronto.”
Helen Brown, The Independent

 

Sleater-Kinney official website

Sleater-Kinney (Wikipedia)

Sleater-Kinney Discography

2021 Vulture interview

NPR Links

“Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir”
Carrie Brownstein (Virago 2015)

Carrie Brownstein (Wikipedia)

Corin Tucker (Wikipedia)

Janet Weiss (Wikipedia)

Laura MacFarlane (Wikipedia)

Riot Grrrl bands

Sleater-Kinney biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a semi-retired securities lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include Liz Phair, Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

TopperPost #964

1 Comment

  1. David Lewis
    Jun 29, 2021

    One of those bands I’d heard of, maybe heard a song or two on soundtracks or some such, but never really followed up. Enjoyed the list and the article. Thanks!

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