All Hands on the Political One
I can’t remember where I actually saw it, but I could have sworn that one major-paper reviewer likened the sound of Sleater-Kinney’s newest release to that of the Go-Go’s, those early ‘80s hitmakers whose punk edges were smoothed out to irrelevance by the time they foisted “We Got the Beat” and “Vacation” on a Reaganite public just looking to have some Cyndi Lauper-like fun. Which is cool if you think about it, because tremendous connectivity and continuity can bestow a significant amount of cultural capital on those looking for it—a clever way of saying that said reviewer may likely succeed in drumming up some additional cash for Sleater-Kinney from Go-Go’s fans looking to rid themselves of whatever disposable income they may have left in this debilitating recession.
And it is true, I did catch a video for Sleater-Kinney’s catchy pop nugget, “You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun”, a year or so back while I was loitering in the girls’ department of a Los Angeles Macy’s waiting for my wife to grab some threads. After I picked my jaw up off of the floor—riot grrrls coming to a mall near you!—I smiled, happy that the Pacific Northwest punk trio’s excellent work had slipped past mainstream sensors looking to intercept anything remotely different from the Spears Nation music that is visited like a plague upon global teen girldom. What a mindfuck it is to see Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss jam through a soft-punk tune about music scene snobbery right after witnessing a nearly nude (and barely post-adolescent) Christina Aguilera warble songs of desire past her (very) glossy lips.
The Go-Go’s, Christina Aguilera, Sleater-Kinney. Like the Sesame Street (or was it Electric Company) skit used to rhetorically inquire: which one of these doesn’t belong?
These are the strange things you might think about when you sit down and sift through Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, a snarling rumination on everything from global politics (“One Beat”), American arrogance (the cleverly titled “Combat Rock”) and possibly September 11th (“Far Away”) to more conventional themes of life, love and death (“Sympathy”, “The Remainder” and onward). Whereas the Go-Go’s wanted to take a “Vacation” from the oppressive mundanity of everyday life (mani-pedis for everyone!), Sleater-Kinney get to work chopping down lethal assumptions and political corruption (“The good old boys are back on top again / And if we let them lead us blindly / The past becomes the future once again” reads the daring “Combat Rock”). While Britney and Christina use their tits and ass to lull teenage wasteland into a sheep-like buying frenzy, Corin, Carrie and Janet are decrying the image machine that makes media gods out of minor actors (“When the lights are shining / Will you see my skin / Or just the shell / That I’m packaged in” asks the hard-hitting “Hollywood Ending”).
Such bravery and honesty is the reason that everyone from the weekly freebies to the more conservative Newsweek has seized upon Sleater-Kinney as the savior of a political rock ‘n’ roll left behind in favor of the vapid bling-bling pipe dreams filling the airwaves at the turn of the century’s stomach. And One Beat does not disappoint: filled with energetic, involved vocals from all three members, slashing guitar interplay and even a rousing horn interval on the old-school punk-funk of “Step Aside” (where SK channels their own version of the Supremes to the tee—“Disassemble your discrimination” has to be the coolest backing vocal I’ve heard in quite a while), Sleater-Kinney’s latest activist missile seeks out and does not deviate from its target.
Filled from top to bottom with three-minute gems, One Beat is a worthwhile listen no matter your mood, creed or color. Consider the anthemic “Light-Rail Coyote”, a tone poem on Sleater-Kinney’s native Oregon replete with a back-page picture of a lonely coyote trapped on a local Portland train. Save for a few addictive breaks, it’s one long, thunderous downstrum riffing on a cultural geography of hookers, punks and hipsters that provides a curious, soulful sustenance. Or the fiery, syncopated “One Beat”, whose integrationist title betrays its tales of dissolution and desperation (“Your word for me is fusion / But is real change an illusion”). A stop-start strum feast, “One Beat” features Sleater-Kinney at their musical and lyrical best; Brownstein and Tucker’s vocal trade-offs are matched in intensity only by their impresive six-string interplay.
Then there are the out-and-out rockers like “Far Away”—a song that may or may not be about September 11—whose frenetic chorus’ Rodney King sentiment (“WHY CAN’T I GET ALONG WITH YOU?”—capped thusly on the lyric sheet) brushes up roughly against its images of exploding worlds and wimpy presidents in hiding. Or the bracing “O2” (for oxygen, just like the Oprah channel), a no-holds-barred meditation a relationship gone wrong (“Crawled out of the mud / This filth you called your love”—ouch!). The list goes on.
The bottom line here is that Sleater-Kinney have indeed come to save rock from the terminal boredom and self-satisfaction it manufactures like so much unwanted Columbia House mail. And whether they’re tackling the American war hawks like Bush and Cheney, knee-jerk sociopolitics (“Dissent’s not treason but they talk like it’s the same”) or good girls who are lured away from better grades and fairy godmothers by their own budding maturity (the cool-as-shit “Prisstina”), the riot grrrls from the PacNorth aren’t afraid to land a few illegal blows when they get everyone on the ground. That alone is a reason to smile. And buy.
And as much as One Beat answers its own question (“Where is the questioning, where is the protest song?” the trio asks in “Combat Rock”), it never gets redundant or dull, mainly because it invests just as much time in its sonic artistry as it does in its activist mind. In other words, Sleater-Kinney doesn’t just talk the talk—they walk the walk.
Walk with them.