The Return of Edgy, Pioneering Band Sleater-Kinney

by Randall Roberts

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

27 October 2014

 

Sleater-Kinney, the Portland, Ore., guitar band that last week announced its return after an eight-year hiatus, has seldom parsed words. The name of its mid-‘90s record label, Kill Rock Stars, served to define the three-piece group’s musical philosophy. Its lyrics conveyed a mission: a celebratory chorus — “words and guitar — I got it! Words and guitar — I like it!” — and an anthemic statement of intent delivered in the chorus of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” spoke volumes.

Throughout its initial 12-year run, the throttle-bump beat of dueling guitarists and a magnetic drummer converged to create one of the Northwest’s finest rock bands. The three, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and their longtime percussionist Janet Weiss, built songs dense with concise, well-crafted words and emotionally charged tones designed for maximum impact. Theirs is a welcome return.

Those bursts are all over the band’s new box set, “Start Together,” which gathers nearly its entire output in a remastered edition: seven albums moving from its self-titled first album in 1995, its back-to-back follow-ups, “Call the Doctor” and “Dig Me Out,” and through to 2006’s “The Woods.”

Slated to come out on Sub Pop Records in January, the new record is called “No Cities to Love” and will arrive from a pair of songwriting partners with fresh perspectives. Brownstein is now a comedic actor costarring on a hit IFC series with Fred Armisen, “Portlandia,” and a recurrent role on the season’s most celebrated new series, Amazon Prime’s “Transparent.” Tucker released an excellent solo album in 2010 and has been raising a son and daughter with her husband, the noted (and Zelig-esque) photographer, director and documentarian Lance Bangs.

The box is designed to serve as a reminder, and wow does it ever. In a ‘90s indie-rock realm ruled by the obtuse, stream-of-consciousness words of powerhouses such as Pavement and Guided by Voices, Sleater-Kinney’s urgency, the clarity of its intent and a noble integrity that they sustained throughout, vibrated a generation of eardrums that now rightly considers it to be one of the great guitar bands of the era.

During its first run, Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss crafted so many killer lyrics, melodies and beats that the bounty can be overwhelming. In the all-caps words of one YouTube commenter: “THIS BAND IS MY MIND WRITTEN IN SONGS.” Through the yin-and-yang magnetism of Brownstein and Tucker — as close to a Jagger-Richards as the ‘90s produced — the band accrued fans with every album, even as they expanded their sound. As it did so, it also evolved into a killer live band.

It’s worth mentioning that the first couplet the band ever delivered, on an incendiary 45-rpm record in 1994 called “You Ain’t It!,” was a (partly unprintable) musical denunciation of Portland band dudes: “You’re the hottest band around/ You’re the biggest ... in town/ But you don’t mean ... to me.” The following year on the relatively discordant first album, Tucker was exploring dark memories on “Her Again,” and already wondering on the temptations of the rock-star life on “Sold Out.”

Vocally, Brownstein and Tucker offered a complementary mix of wail and bark, of call-and-response urgency, of delicately woven thought and action. On “Little Babies,” a highlight of 1997’s “Dig Me Out,” Tucker rails against a needy, presumptuous lover in the foreground while in the background Brownstein woos her. “Good Things” is a super-sticky song about the dissolution of love and the struggle to maintain: “Why do good things never want to stay? Some things you lose, some things you give away.”

“Combat Rock” co-opts a Clash album title for a tangly, minimalist guitar song that considers the politics of patriotism, first through Brownstein’s choppy phrasing, followed by Tucker’s exuberant cry: “Hey look it’s time to pledge allegiance! Oh god I love my dirty Uncle Sam!”

Through its 80-plus songs, the band celebrated the power of words and guitar while railing against gender expectations and stereotypes and the sexism of many musical gatekeepers, the unspoken assumptions embedded within male-dominated rock culture.

To place Sleater-Kinney at the top of a hierarchy, though, is to misrepresent history. The band was joined by a notable volume of resonant voices. Lois Maffeo, Jean Smith (Mecca Normal), Heather Lewis (Beat Happening), Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, were all part of a pre-Internet network that connected small labels through snail mail and college radio.

In hindsight, that scene marked the sunset of an era in which handcrafted catalogs from labels like K Records, Simple Machines and Dischord were engines of information, when ‘zine culture was at a peak and 45-rpm records and cassette compilations could spark mini-revolutions in thinking regarding the power of community and the voice of the underdog.

Sleater-Kinney was the product of this bespoke culture. Before joining with Brownstein, Tucker was in Heavens to Betsy, a minimalist group whose heartbreaking early song “Baby’s Gone” is an unsung gem of the period. Brownstein was a member of Excuse 17, part of a post-“riot grrl” scene centered around Chainsaw Records and feminist punk bands such as Team Dresch, the Need and the Fakes. Weiss arrived from Quasi, an excellent post-punk organ-drum duo she formed with then-husband Sam Coomes.

By the time they ended that first run with “The Woods,” they’d mastered their instruments and could translate ideas with miraculous spins and entanglements and drove with a force that pushed the distortion to the front and Tucker’s euphoric voice to new heights. They were also making longer songs, blowing on the occasional harmonica and exploring new themes.

A testimony to its steadfast vision and devotion to artistic integrity is embedded in the response to a question given of Brownstein during a 1997 interview with the A.V. Club. She was asked, simply, “Is your band important?”

“To us it is, and I think it is important to other people,” said Brownstein. “It is important for men and women to see women playing music and interested in being musicians and songwriters, and not really willing to make a lot of compromises in terms of selling out to various different things.” She added that

“as female musicians, it’s really hard to be represented as multi-dimensional and multi-faceted,” and worried about becoming a caricature.

The band’s new song, “Bury Our Friends,” suggests Sleater-Kinney remains vividly multidimensional. A distorted declaration that opens with dueling guitar lines and a booming beat, the song arrives with angular urgency: “Exhume our idols and bury our friends,” the two vocalists sing in unison, “We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in.”

That’s reassuring to hear, but anyone who has followed Sleater-Kinney’s run knows to expect nothing less.

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