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PROFILE: An Introduction to Sleater-Kinney

by Ed Biggs

Much more than most reunions, the return of Sleater-Kinney in 2015 after nearly a decade on hiatus didn’t just feel right, it felt necessary. When they called it a day in 2006 shortly after their excellent seventh album The Woods, singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss had built up a bulletproof reputation, with a substantial cult fanbase and enough critical praise to match some of the most famous names in rock ‘n’ roll history. Seriously, over 11 years, virtually nobody had a bad word to say about Sleater-Kinney.

Loosely connected with the North-Western riot-grrl scene because of gender and geography, Sleater-Kinney formed in Olympia, Washington, a hotbed of underground invention in the early ‘90s as nearby Seattle exploded after the Nirvana revolution. Naming themselves after a street in which they practiced, Tucker and Brownstein formed the band in mid-1994 with a succession of fill-in drummers, including Toni Gogin, Misty Farrell and Australian Lora MacFarlane, before Weiss settled as permanent drummer in early 1997, joining from Portland indie-rock group Quasi.

Their seven albums of their original incarnation scanned as statements of self-affirmation, to prove that women in rock existed, mattered, and could do it a hell of a lot better than many of their male counterparts. Paradoxically, for all that positivity, Sleater-Kinney were also a negation, a rejection of expected roles for women in the music industry and wider society. That tension in the group’s soul was reflected in the angular, anxious music. Almost all of their songs were recorded in C#, a key that sounds quite bitter and angry, and meant that the melodies had to fight their way out in order to be heard.

That latent pop tendency comes from Brownstein: “you can embrace punk all want and try to push melody aside, but pop is infectious,” she told Rolling Stone upon their return in 2015. Melody was always flirted with, but often simultaneously rejected, and it can be hard in the constant pushing and pulling in Tucker and Brownstein’s spindly, wiry guitar sounds (Sleater-Kinney never had a bass player). It was an existential question that went thrillingly unresolved, and that lack of an answer was the unspoken call-to-arms, as important as any of their lyrics.

Early on in their career, they drew attention for a number of stormy, confrontational performances with male-dominated crowds as they supported the likes of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, with Brownstein kicking a mic stand at a persistent heckler and Tucker announcing during another show “We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band. We are the band.”

As their music evolved, that sense of sloganeering quickly shifted into something more subtle, more ambiguous and less tinged with absolutism. Growing out from the philosophical touchstones of riot-grrl, it became something much darker and evocative but never betraying that original sense of purpose. Sleater-Kinney simply went further with the ideas, and attracted the attention of a great many commentators along the way. They supported Pearl Jam in 2003, and were described by Time magazine in 2001 as ‘America’s Best Rock Band’.

After their split, soon after releasing 2005’s exceptional album The Woods, Sleater-Kinney endured as icons of the underground scene in America, despite selling fewer than 600,000 albums through their whole career by 2014. Why should this be? The answer to this, again, lies in that unresolved tension in their music. Sleater-Kinney didn’t want to destroy rock ‘n’ roll; they also cared very deeply about it at the same time as critiquing and questioning it. They wanted to claim the machismo-filled language and performance art of rock ‘n’ roll – the loud guitars, the on-stage posturing and shape-throwing, the moshing – for themselves, instead of rejecting them.

As a result, they fit into an exclusive lineage of American underground music. Just like Minor Threat, or Nirvana, or Sonic Youth, there wouldn’t be anybody else quite like Sleater-Kinney – as Jessica Hopper asserted in her excellent analytical piece on the group’s return ‘A Certain Rebellion’, there would be no replicas.

Enjoy our ‘Introduction to Sleater-Kinney’ playlist over at Spotify by clicking here, and check out our take on their discography below!


Sleater-Kinney (1995)

sleater_kinney_sleater_kinneyRecorded in just one night during a brief Australian tour where they hired their first drummer, Lora MacFarlane, Sleater-Kinney is necessarily rather basic and lo-fi in its production quality. Nevertheless, almost all of the essential elements of what would make the band’s music so adored – Tucker and Brownstein’s duelling vocals and guitars, the unresolved battle between art-rock and angst – are present, and in more than just an embryonic form. At just 22 minutes long, it’s extremely economical and the songs stick rather rigidly to the aesthetic diktats of riot-grrl that envisaged punk as activism, but with the passage of more than two decades, it stands up surprisingly well as a time-piece. (6/10) LISTEN

Call The Doctor (1996)

sleater_kinney_call_the_doctorBy late 1995, Tucker and Brownstein had left their respective bands (Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17 respectively) to concentrate full-time on Sleater-Kinney, and consequently Call The Doctor is regarded by fans as the first ‘proper’ S-K record, at a full half-hour in length to boot. Crucially, it also represented a significant widening and deepening of their sonic palette, with much more evidence of their distinctive musical style. While still full of urgency, it was at once aggressive and poignant, with a willingness to subvert and a refusal to be satisfied motivating every note. At the same time, Tucker and Brownstein’s lyrics tackled a wider range of subjects, alternately vulnerable and stoic. It was also the point at which Sleater-Kinney went truly nationwide in their impact, as Call The Doctor featured near the top of several critics’ end-of-year lists as Chainsaw Records desperately tried to keep up with demand. (8/10) LISTEN

Dig Me Out (1997)

sleater_kinney_dig_me_outSleater-Kinney’s first album for the more established Olympia-based indie imprint Kill Rock Stars was the first of two masterpieces in their career, and the most substantial evolution they had made yet. Musically, the addition of Janet Weiss on drums (who remains with them to this day) made their trademark sound complete, bringing heart and soul as well as bludgeoning percussive force. But Dig Me Out recognised the key utilitarian aspect of punk: that it should teach empathy as well as mere grandstanding against authority. As such, Sleater-Kinney were able to communicate across the gender divide, at least more subtly than most groups from the increasingly defunct riot-grrl scene had been capable of doing.

With lyrics critiquing stereotypes of motherhood (‘Little Babies’), gender politics (‘Dig Me Out’) and rock music itself (‘Words And Guitar’) they were ferociously political, but they also got personal on the break-up ‘One More Hour’, concerning Tucker and Brownstein’s own short-lived relationship and the media spotlight thrown on it without their permission. Together, Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss are a three-headed hydra, each bringing something different but of equal value to a whole that adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and Dig Me Out arguably remains the most impressive demonstration of that sound and attitude, unifying in its vision. One of the greatest punk albums of all time. (9/10) LISTEN

The Hot Rock (1999)

sleater_kinney_the_hot_rockWith huge expectations on them after the critical adoration they’d received with Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney wrongfooted their cult fanbase slightly by heading into gloomier, more personal territory for their fourth album. Opting to work with Roger Moutenot, who had produced Yo La Tengo’s exquisite 1997 record I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, ditching John Goodmanson’s raucous production style in favour of a more textured approach, the change did them good and proved that they were capable of different dynamics. Exploring failed relationships, personal uncertainty and Y2K paranoia on longer, more expansive tracks like ‘The Size Of Our Love’, The Hot Rock arguably registers as Sleater-Kinney’s darkest album in terms of themes. Spiritual and existential as well as being loud and musically challenging, with Tucker and Brownstein’s sense of mutual musical simpatico closer than ever, it also earned the group their first Billboard Top 200 album (#181). (8/10) LISTEN

All Hands On The Bad One (2000)

sleater_kinney_all_hands_on_the_bad_oneReverting back to themes of sexual identity and politics for their fifth album in six years, Sleater-Kinney hooked up once again with John Goodmanson. Focussing on what it means to be a woman in the male-dominated world of rock at the turn of the millennium, All Hands On The Bad One is perhaps the most singular of all their records, channelling the forces of punk and new wave with third-wave feminism. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s their most accessible too. Sleater-Kinney’s struggle to get themselves taken seriously as an indie group, similar to that suffered by a great many of the groups shoved under the riot-grrl umbrella, is a theme repeated throughout, particularly on ‘The Professional’, ‘Male Model’ and ‘Ironclad’. Specifically, they railed against the sexual violence that had broken out at Woodstock ’99 on ‘#1 Must Have’.

But there was a defiant melodic streak at the core of all this, as they even re-invented themselves as a kind of party band on the taunting ‘You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun’, aimed at male indie snobs, and even dabbled in ersatz funk on ‘Milkshake ‘n’ Honey’ and generally demonstrated a softer side on ‘Leave You Behind’. In lesser hands, the kind of lyrics on this record could have come off as sloganeering or hectoring, but the trio’s sense of creative fun and skill at communication make it righteous. Since Sleater-Kinney have never made any compilations, All Hands On The Bad One is the ideal starting point for exploring their catalogue. (8/10) LISTEN

One Beat (2002)

sleater_kinney_one_beatRecorded under the shroud of fear that had infiltrated pretty much every aspect of public life in America after 9/11, One Beat was the most politically explicit album Sleater-Kinney had made to this point. An adrenaline shock of a record, boasting some of the most complicated and coruscating guitar work that Brownstein and Tucker had engaged in yet, it dealt with the ‘with us or against us’ patriotism sweeping the nation, critiquing terrorism and American foreign policy with the same attitude of unmasking the fears and complacencies motivating both. Tucker’s vocals are particularly electrifying, with lyrics that often feel that they should be hectored from behind a lectern or on top of a soapbox (“the president hides / while working men rush in and give their lives”) never coming across as preachy.

Given what later happened to The Dixie Chicks, another all-female group with much broader commercial clout than anything Sleater-Kinney could muster, for speaking out against George W. Bush, One Beat was a terrifically gutsy move, particularly as they were now playing massive arenas in support of Pearl Jam. But it was not all war songs, as tracks like ‘Oh!’ and ‘Prisstina’ had preppy inflections that leavened the mixture slightly. Ending the record is a brutally poignant personal moment with ‘Sympathy’, about the recent premature birth of Tucker’s first child, but for the most part, that same all-encompassing fear and anxiety was effectively channelled outwards into the political themes of One Beat. (8/10) LISTEN

The Woods (2005)

sleater_kinney_the_woodsThe curtain call for Sleater-Kinney Mk.I saw a change in record label, from KRS to the legendary Sub Pop, and also saw them part ways with John Goodmanson behind the production desk once more, this time in favour of Dave Fridmann, responsible for some of the most successful indie records of the ‘90s and early ‘00s (Flaming Lips, Mogwai and Mercury Rev to name a few). Boasting a much weightier and noisier sound, full of heavy riffing and pounding, clattering drum fills, The Woods allowed them to access the indie mainstream for the first time, making themselves known to fans of Foo Fighters and Queens Of The Stone Age while retaining their distinctive characteristics. For a group that has never had a bassist, The Woods sounds like it might be the product of a conventional heavy rock group, and it’s to Fridmann’s credit that he was able to open up these new vistas for the trio.

That’s not to say that The Woods is some kind of sell out; in fact, in many ways it’s their most mysterious and unknowable album. Impressionistic tracks like ‘Modern Girl’ and ‘Night Light’ are subtle despite their full-on sonics, while the retro-rock-baiting ‘Entertain’ calls out the derivative garage rock throwbacks cluttering up the indie scene at the time and provides something a little more accessible. The intoxicating brew is topped off with the 11-minute goliath ‘Let’s Call It Love’, as Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss leave absolutely everything out on the field of play in pursuit of pure rock thrills.

In terms of scope, The Woods is Sleater-Kinney’s most technically brilliant and expansive sounding album by quite some distance, up there with the very best guitar records of the decade. Precisely ten years on from their inception, the group was now exhausted through sheer hard work and decided to take an extended hiatus. Their decision to bow out at the top of their game, with their most uncompromising, critically applauded and popular work yet, was unfortunate as they could yet have gotten bigger, given the emergence of indie into the mainstream in the mid ‘00s, but it did at least ensure that their cult status would be preserved, untarnished, forever. (9/10) LISTEN

No Cities To Love (2015)

sleater_kinney_no_cities_to_loveFew could have hoped for a comeback as good as No Cities To Love, particularly after such a long time away. Reuniting with John Goodmanson once again, their creative foil for four of their original run of seven albums, every aspect of Sleater-Kinney’s iconoclastic sound and attitude was entirely undiminished with the passage of a decade, making it seem more like a second debut. There were post-recession think-pieces about money (‘Price Tag’), the indie scene as they left it (‘No Cities To Love’), and even introspective thoughts of mortality (‘Bury Our Friends’) and Brownstein and Tucker’s rusty, serrated guitar hooks were as angular and jarring as ever. Goodmanson’s familiar production brought a brighter, more open sound quality in comparison to The Woods, which was frequently airless and suffocating. Maybe it’s that nobody bothered to pick up the torch they had laid down with their split, but, in 2015, it felt as if we needed Sleater-Kinney now more than ever before. You can read our full review of No Cities To Love here, and the original mark stands. (8/10) LISTEN

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