Wild Flag may have called it a day, but fans crying out for more of Carrie Brownstein’s uniquely phosphorescent output should receive a shot in the arm thanks to this: venerable US indie Sub Pop are on the verge of releasing a 7xLP box set of Sleater-Kinney’s complete album discography, ‘Start Together’, newly remastered and sounding better than ever.
Through their ferociously feminist, left-wing mindset and instantly-identifiable sound, S-K dominated the riot grrrl scene of the late ’90s, before laying down their guitars after a 12-year career. To mark the box set’s release, Clash takes a look back through each of the band’s albums, providing a handy guide to the band’s history…
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Olympia’s early ’90s riot grrrl scene lit the touch paper for an astonishingly large number of feminist-minded folks in later years, from conceptual artists to political theorists; from queercore scenesters to DIY zinesters. Its most visible statement, however, came in the form of influential bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens To Betsy, and when the latter’s principal songwriter Corin Tucker paired up with then-girlfriend Carrie Brownstein of angular punkas Excuse 17, it was inevitable that sparks would fly.
This debut LP was recorded over the course of one long night in Melbourne, Australia, as the band set out its stall with an early template of the post-punk psychodrama to come. Equal parts riot grrrl, Sonic Youth and The Slits’ early Peel sessions, the record assembled insistent guitar hooks alongside the contrasting voices of its two guitar-playing vocalists, and the resulting set of pointed, lo-fi cherry bombs proved fascinating.
It’s worth noting the one song contributed by then-drummer Lora Macfarlane – the helpfully-named ‘Lora’s Song’ – since it toes the line between unsettling and beguiling in gloriously off-kilter fashion. But Brownstein steals the show on the also-handily-titled ‘The Last Song’; her sandpaper screams pulling the listener face-first into thrilling bouts of furious intensity. Not a bad start.
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‘Call The Doctor’ (1996)
Their first grand statement. Following the demise of both Excuse 17 and Heavens To Betsy, Sleater-Kinney became Tucker and Brownstein’s primary focus, and the band duly kicked up several notches.
This much was immediately evident: if its predecessor was a dizzy head-rush, ‘Call The Doctor’ was a carefully-crafted brainstorm, with the two guitars locked in a delirious battle for space amidst the band’s newfound sense of restraint.
Long-term fan favourites like ‘Good Things’ and ‘Heart Attack’ demonstrated that tension didn’t necessarily require release, with the sense of unease heightened by Tucker’s powerful vocal explosions. Meanwhile, Brownstein provided the band’s first genuine classic song in the exhilarating “YEAH!”s and gleeful misogyny-bait of ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ – “Pictures of me on your bedroom wall / Invite you back after the show / I’m the queen of rock’n’roll.”
It’s the sound of a band beginning to move beyond boundaries, both their own musical limitations and the genre stylings of the riot grrrl scene with which they were so closely associated. There was so much more to come, however – this was merely the end of the warm-up.
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‘Dig Me Out’ (1997)
A genuine turning point in Sleater-Kinney’s early career, ‘Dig Me Out’ is the moment where tentative steps out of the punk rock ghetto became a confident leap into the wider world.
With Tucker’s phenomenal vocal hitting peak holler straight off the bat, the record is also illustrative of the bold idiosyncrasies that had finally crystallised in their songwriting: the nervous verses of ‘One More Hour’ came bolstered by one of their most strident choruses thus far (all the more fascinating given that it dealt explicitly with the two singers’ break-up, which had become public knowledge following a lazily-scurrilous revelation in Spin magazine), while ‘Words And Guitar’ felt like a call to arms for anyone moved by the incandescent joy at the heart of their righteous splendour.
Not only that, but it also introduced one of indie rock’s finest drummers to the S-K equation: Janet Weiss’s herky-jerky dynamism and tumbling fills made her an instant hero, while the bubble-gum hooks of ‘Little Babies’ owe plenty to her playful, surfy looseness.
Riot grrrl, punk rock, indie, whatever: from the Kinks-inspired artwork to the insurgent rush of its 13 perfect songs, this is an album for the ages.
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‘The Hot Rock’ (1999)
So how do you follow up perfection? Plenty of bands have driven themselves to distraction trying (and inevitably failing) to replicate those moments of instantly-appreciable glory, but on ‘The Hot Rock’, Sleater-Kinney simply delve into the more cerebral end of their still-evolving capabilities, and come up trumps once more.
Okay, this is hardly an exercise in Zappa-like chops or math-heavy time signatures, but here the hooks and fury of the previous record polish themselves into something more gracefully reflective, while maintaining an emotional clarity that swoops and soars with every tug of the heartstrings.
‘The End Of You’ and ‘Get Up’ denote a particular debt to Kim Gordon’s most recognisable work with Sonic Youth; the former unafraid to allow white-hot instrumental breakdowns carry the drama, while the latter features spoken-word verses that simmer ominously over understated chord patterns.
The sense of release when the chorus finally happens (just the once, right at the end) is palpable and delirious – the perfect summation of an album based around smarts and style rather than their usual energy and fire. And if the majestic ‘Start Together’ isn’t quite the greatest song the band ever wrote, it’s certainly their finest opener.
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‘All Hands On The Bad One’ (2000)
Arguably, this was the first time the band showed any signs of regression in their stylistic development. Whereas previous records saw them evolving from lowly beginnings to genuine phenomena, ‘All Hands…’ simply took the various sounds scattered across its four predecessors and refined them into nuggets of purest pop, adding only a few new tricks to their impressive repertoire.
This was scarcely exemplified more excitably than on the insistent chutzpah of ‘You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun’, although the sumptuous title track and the jet-heeled ‘Ironclad’ give it a good run for its money. Everything feels comfortable without lacking in power or passion; confident instead of complacent, which possibly explains the presence of the softer ‘Leave You Behind’ and ‘Milkshake N’ Honey’.
It’s the sort of record that most acts wish they could’ve pulled off in their mid-period years, but lack the gumption to craft, or simply the requisite levels of sass and smarts.
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‘One Beat’ (2002)
A demarcation point in Sleater-Kinney’s history: the moment when they cranked up the amps from ‘pretty f*cking loud’ to ‘RAWK’.
Two main things informed the lyrical slant of the record: the terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001 and the premature birth of Tucker’s son. As such, it’s a record steeped in anger, fear and anxiety, and this sheer force of feeling spills over into muscular riffs and an agitated rhythmic complexity. (One beat? Not a chance – the superhuman Weiss absolutely slays on this record).
The politically pointed ‘Combat Rock’ and ‘Far Away’ counted amongst the album’s highlights, and were surely a decisive factor in S-K being selected as tour support to Pearl Jam the following year, but it’s the sense of heightened songcraft that stands out most on ‘One Beat’. With producer John Goodmanson determined to steer the band in new directions, new ideas are trialled all over the place – even brass augmentations get a run-out.
It’s not all darkness either: the new wave synths and explosive chorus of ‘Oh!’ cut beautifully through the tension, while ‘Light Rail Coyote’ remains a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a keeper, alright.
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‘The Woods’ (2005)
Following their Pearl Jam-assisted foray into the world of arena rock, the trio signed to Sub Pop and decamped from their usual Washington base to Cassadega, New York, where they began working with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann. Intent on reshaping their sound towards a more classic rock-oriented bent, they constructed a towering cacophony of crunching power chords and convex, near-psychedelic arrangements, informed by Led Zeppelin and The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’ opus.
When it works, it’s sublime – the pastoral irony of ‘Modern Girl’; guitars that jab, poke and pry amidst ‘Jumpers’’ giddy flow; splendid full-pelt hollers on opener ‘The Fox’ – with special mention going to Fridmann’s sludgy, ultra-distorted production (perhaps cribbing notes from Dinosaur Jr’s reasoning that if a guitar sounded cool with distortion, that logic could then be extended to an entire record).
Decrying then-prevalent new wave revivalists – “You’re such a bore / 1984 / Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore” – they set out their stall as a group that was more than happy to pull the rug out from under themselves. It’s worth noting, however, that Tucker was becoming increasingly noncommittal, even admitting in one interview that she thought about quitting the band every week. This disaffection never quite consumes ‘The Woods’ as a whole, but it’s audibly there: the second half of the album repeatedly threatens to run out of steam despite a veritable smorgasbord of ideas and creativity.
Still, it stands proudly as the band’s final album before they declared a state of “indefinite hiatus” in June 2006 – a flawed masterpiece that’s truly unique amongst their oeuvre.
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Words: Will Fitzpatrick
‘Start Together’ is released by Sub Pop on October 20th. More information.