The Bubble Playlist No. 28: Sleater-Kinney

Always something of a critics’ band, the Olympia, WA three-piece Sleater-Kinney were in many ways the complete punk-rock band. Their expressive performances and unquestionable musical ability were compounded by a curiously un-American sensitiveness, their aggressive style mitigated always by perceptiveness and a sense of emotional connection with the listener. Musically distinctive, their unique selling point being singer Corin Tucker’s signature vocal quaver. It could be said that in these terms alone they were head and shoulders above contemporaries in the West Coast scene. Certainly, they rose above the more histrionic aspects of their genre without sacrificing anything in quality or any lessening of authenticity. Influenced primarily by earlier punk and post-punk artists, they pay particular homage to the Clash, the Ramones and New York titans Sonic Youth within their lyrics, and betraying also the understandable –geographically speaking – influence of grunge. Their sound is characterised primarily by the musical and, indeed, personal interplay between singer-guitarists Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. Arguably, the band is based around the interlocking talents of the two. Tucker’s chunkier rhythm guitar compensates for the lack of a bassist as well as providing a suitable backdrop for Brownstein’s talents to shine, creating tension with her angular, intricate guitar lines. In this way they mirror contemporaries such as hardcore giants Fugazi, whose singer-guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto make similar use of the bass-versus-treble approach. Sleater-Kinney’s vocal interplay is similar although the roles are reversed, with Brownstein’s measured, deeper tones offsetting Tucker’s more fractured delivery.

As aforementioned it’s probably Tucker’s vocals which represent the quintessence of Sleater-Kinney’s sound, as of all the elements present they best encapsulate the band’s emotional intensity, which is what arguably marks them out as genuinely special. Certainly it’s hard to think of a more mature, similarly cerebral band loosely within their genre. Perhaps the two that come closest are Fugazi or Sonic Youth, just as much with regard to ethos as to actual sound, but I’ve always found Fugazi too didactic, too humourless, and Sonic Youth’s appeal is sometimes lost in layers of what they doubtless consider to be artistic integrity. As such, Sleater-Kinney represent to me the perfect synthesis of sound, sensitivity and skill. Their lyrics are powerful and emotive without ever becoming trite, and on a range of social, political and personal issues they are never less that utterly convincing. Prominent American rock critics Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus share this sentiment, with Marcus considering them, quite literally, the ‘best band in the world’.

Of course, it’s hard to appreciate this fact without listening to them; everyone has preferences, and this list isn’t supposed to be a ‘best-of’ Sleater-Kinney. But I do think it captures the best of them, as well as arguably summing them up as a band in both musical and intellectual terms.

‘Her Again’ from ‘Sleater-Kinney’ (1995).
This song sets off at a lope, punctuated by a classic Brownstein guitar line, a series of arpeggios redolent of a depressed Peter Buck. It subsequently charges into a simple chorus, with Tucker wailing the title lyrics, moving up several gears without warning before settling back into the relatively contained verses. Later in the song, Tucker frays before lapsing into near-incomprehensibility. She would later recycle and refine this manic vocal delivery on next LP Call the Doctor’s ‘My Stuff’. ‘Her Again’ is a short and unreconstructed track, but it represents the openly DIY aspect of their early work and provided the basis for a formula that only improved over the next two albums.

‘Good Things’ from ‘Call the Doctor’ (1996).
‘Good Things’ is just about one of their best, a painfully honest yet somehow restrained breakup song evincing the band’s fondness for the quiet/loud dynamic, something overused these days but at its best Rembrandt-esque in its use of contrasting elements. As early Sleater-Kinney tracks go ‘Good Things’ is reasonably calm; it smoulders rather than explodes and ends abruptly, making the song functional and un-indulgent, further emphasising its honesty.

‘Taste Test’ from ‘Call the Doctor’ (1997).
Not one of their most well-known songs but perfectly representative of how Sleater-Kinney’s work is all about the interplay between Tucker and Brownstein. The strident call-and-response chorus appears to be a conversation, and the song’s interesting structure makes fairly basic lyrics – “Tell me how I can make it right/Don’t start, I’m not gonna fight you/Tell me what’s going on inside/Could be I’m not gonna find you” – much more appealing than they might otherwise be. Sleater-Kinney’s simplicity and understatement prevent such lyrics from sounding overwrought; in less skilled hands, ‘Taste Test’ could be unlistenable. As it is, it’s incredible

‘One More Hour’ from ‘Dig Me Out’ (1997).
‘One More Hour’ is Sleater-Kinney’s pinnacle. Indeed the whole of this album could be on this list, as ‘Dig Me Out’ arguably represents the band taking true possession of their talent, delivering 36 minutes of what can only be described as punk-rock perfection. Brilliantly structured and the result of pure confidence – as Christgau comments, possessed of ‘excited mastery and runaway glee’ – it combines perfectly all five aspects of the band’s signature sounds and is by turns sad, happy, tense and emotional, with each element breathlessly jostling for space. Corin Tucker’s pre-chorus lyrics, ‘Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes’ could be dreadful, but instead provides one of the most beautiful moments in music. Yeah, I like this one

‘#1 Must Have’ from ‘All Hands on the Bad One’ (2000).
1999’s ‘The Hot Rock’ has been unfairly sidelined, because I’ve said all I can about Sleater-Kinney’s emotional brilliance. ‘#1 Must Have’ signals an intellectual sea-change in the band’s work, as one of their more overtly socially conscious tracks. While essentially hopeful in its outlook, the song’s slightly brutal assessment of women’s social position ‘There’ll always be concerts where women are raped’ is further compounded by the savage humour concerning considerations of beauty, ‘watch me make up my mind instead of my face’, betraying the band’s classic punk influences. While it signals a more novel direction in lyrical themes, it still features Sleater-Kinney’s characteristic devotion to intricate verses and crashing choruses, with the band as forthright as ever but having undergone a slight repackaging of emotions and priorities, perhaps due to Corin’s starting a family, as sources close to the band have suggested

‘Combat Rock’ off ‘One Beat’ (2002).
Another rallying call, although one with a twist, and one further underlining Sleater-Kinney’s growing interest in social issues. After 9/11, and with the birth of her son, primary lyricist Tucker appears to have developed her existing political interests, best summed up in ‘Combat Rock’, a vicious and intelligent excoriation of American jingoism. “Show you love your country, go out and spend some cash/red, white, blue hotpants doing it for Uncle Sam” stands out as a good example of her cynicism, as well as an extremely visual approach. ‘Combat Rock’, uncoincidentally sharing a title with a Clash LP is fascinating as a self-aware and unpretentious protest song, although the slightly disrupted, bouncing-ball effect of the verse takes a little getting used to

‘Jumpers’ off ‘The Woods’ (2005).
‘Jumpers’ is the standout track off the band’s final album. A colossal, thunderous dash through the mind of a teenage suicide, crashing, disrupted and with the best chorus since 1997’s ‘Things you Say’, ‘Jumpers’ is musically more polished than much of the band’s output yet remains visceral. The lyrics are excellent, with ‘The sky is blue most every day/The lemons grow like tumours/They are tiny suns infused with sour’ highlights only sadness pervading even a beautiful environment. The nod to Mark Twain, with ‘the coldest winter I ever saw…the summer that I spent’ emphasises the band’s intellectual aspirations. The song ends also with a crash, abruptly, as if falling off a bridge…oh, you got that? Fantastic.

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