Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fall Down on the World: The Music of Sleater-Kinney, Pt. 3--Treasure Chest Fulla Titles


John Goodmanson behind the boards for the first time (he would also help any number of extraneous circumstances not fuck up two future SK albums, All Hands on the Bad One and One Beat), cover pilfered from The Kink Kontroversy, and a new drummer in the person of Janet Weiss, who brought a few extra years of kicking ass to the table...Dig Me Out is arguably Sleater-Kinney's most worshipped album.

"Dig Me Out"--The hosannas are plentiful and well-deserved. The first song Carrie and Corin played for the new girl is the first song of the album and shows that if Andre the Giant Has a Posse, Janet Weiss Has a Sniper Rifle. Like the best lover you've ever had, Janet exposes all those who came before her as pitiful charlatans. And it only takes one time.

Carrie's riff is even more furiously entreating than the words. "Outta my body/Outta my skin." A gesture made by women understood by women, and those who understand women. That spirit of confrontation has not left them over the two years since their debut, but they've channelled it far better than any of their influences. The difference between Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill, musically, is the difference between walking a tightrope with or without a net.

"One More Hour"--Rob Sheffield's phenomenally readable memoir Love is a Mix Tape is a tribute to love, music, the love of music, and--wait for it, Godot--the music of love. Moments of triumph, tragedy and trifle are all memorably soundtracked. No reminiscence is more poignant than the funeral of Sheffield's wife, writer Renee Crist. While the actual service featured but one song--"Shall We Gather At the River," a standard hymn--Sheffield's inner stereo was blasting "One More Hour."

As far as searing pleas for time go, "One More Hour" isn't particularly mournful or bitter; nor is it hopeful. There is no real hint as to the direction Corin's recovery will take. The room she is left alone in represents sweet days gone sour. Either it undergoes a drastic redecoration or remains untouched.

The song's cardiac pull becomes outright push when you consider the inspiration for it was taken from real life: the romance of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. (The love that Spin magazine dare not respect the privacy of.) Listening to Carrie beseech her ex to "let it go" and "say goodbye" while Corin tries to express in words tender in their simplicity exactly what the experience meant to her ("I needed it") is just too much, but it's just enough.

"Turn It On"--That's three perennial people-pleasers all duck-like already. Damnation. Sleater-Kinney wouldn't have got the attention and accolades they did if they were three guys playing the same ass. Three guys--anywhere at anytime--wouldn't have come up with these same songs. It's not about the design of the wheel, it's about the durability. You may as well say, Ah, Bad Brains are overrated, people just namedrop them 'cause they're black. Please please you!

SK treats androcentrism like the world treats Mr. Bill. Sugar and spice? Nah. Paraffin and potassium nitrate, more like. They're subject to the infuriating apathy, borderline idolatory, and invincible prejudices that make up the world because they bare themselves for themselves. The knife goes in, the guts come out, and that's what being an artist is all about. "It's too hard/It's too good."

"The Drama You've Been Craving"--Intense repetition pumps along the call-and-response.

"Heart Factory"--The ICD from the last album is doing your body fine, but wouldn't you like a brand-new ready-made ticker pulsing the way it's s'pose to? Sure.

Not chilling like a Stepfather Factory (the latest in technology!), this is a different beat altogether. The guitars, rather than the voices, play off of each other here and how glorious it is. Do you hate anthems? Then this is your anthem. Carrie the saleswoman, Corin the disgruntled consumer.

"Words and Guitar"--Wag yer tail. Galvanize yer life. "Music is the air I breathe." From a racket to a lull and back, now you see why the heart factory can barely keep up with the demand.

"It's Enough"--No one has ever said the word "enough" more distinctively than Corin does here. It makes me wanna kiss a red velvet cupcake. A compact fixture-shaker, fer sher.

"Little Babies"--Special punks need the most attention!

Fuck that, it's Carrie's Special Dark Chocolate bumped up against Corin's Krackle in a fight to the sugar coma! Puerile chorus, but kids love candy. I've never been able to shake the instinct that tells me this song is at its core very despondent in spirit.

"Not What You Want"--With a warrior wiggle not seen since the heyday of Rygar, our golden trio duplicates the sensation of wind burn as experienced by the feelers of highway bugs. DESTINATION: IRRELEVANT.

"Buy Her Candy"--I was in the audience for Sleater-Kinney's last show on the East Coast in August 2006 (and I was also there for when it wasn't their last show on the East Coast). Janet's technical problems made room for a rare live rendition of this drum-free beauty. It hadn't been played since 1999, and wouldn't appear again for the remainder of that final tour. As grateful as I was that we in DC were spared "One More Hour" (their traditional closer that year, assuring their fans left the club as complete emotional wrecks), in a way "Buy Her Candy" pierces the heart just as lethally. The novelty of the moment--shit, the honor of the moment--kept me, protected me even, from feeling it too intensely (and I'm a woman who has to fight back tears at the sight of cardinals, okay).

Crush hard; crush harder. It's like watching someone cry over you as the last breaths leave your body.

"Things You Say"--Corin does two things with her immoderately gifted voice: race up the stairs and keep time from killing itself.

"Dance Song '97"--Songs like these weed out the class from the crass at parties.

One guitar buffs steel, the other creates ice crystals. Keys open doors. Winner of the boogie showdown is...Janet! 2:23 on is a smashbug John Waters would clutch pearls over.

"Jenny"--I ain't a Jenny; don't call me a Jenny. Only two people get to call me that, and they follow it with an endearment that is the construction of the pyramids to you. Can you imagine anyone calls Corin Tucker "Cor"? Only if they think she deserves it!

Wins and losses are runner-ups forever to the persistence of memory in a world without end. The frame will never hide the truth of the picture for very long.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fall Down on the World: The Music of Sleater-Kinney, Pt. 2--Code Red


With slightly increased production values, and an increased vocal role for Carrie Brownstein, Call the Doctor showcases a much-improved Sleater-Kinney. While it suffers from the same malady that kept their debut in bed for a couple days--Second-Half Epstein-Barr--the overall picture is vibrant, powerful, and raw. Leave it to these women, and their irresistible press forging technique, to make punk polemics sound, and feel, fresher than ever.

"Call the Doctor"--Corin and Carrie in our ears on some Angel/Angel shit. The door is ajar. Fuck outta here, I thought it was a door? Call the doctor up and begin to make sense of it. Less than a minute to go, you find out you've been discretely fitted with an ICD. These corrective shocks will be felt throughout the album.

"Hubcap"--My SK-lovin' buddy Trick once filled up several pages of a notepad with a song-by-song grading of each album. Most songs scored "A," many others scored "A+," and I think there may have been an "A-" somewhere. Therefore, the "C+" he stuck beside "Milkshake N Honey" (as featured on All Hands on the Bad One) jutted out toward mine eye like an unwelcome tumescence.

"My dude! How?" He replied with some mumbly poo about how it dragged on and just wasn't very enticing to the ear at all, and he even used the word "turgid," except he didn't, because he doesn't know what that word means.

"There are worse songs in their catalog then that," I protested. "Easy." Challenged, I had a ready reply.

"Hubcap" is the insomnia anthem of our age. Super soporific. Lora's drums and backing vocals both bore me thick. The refrain is crap: "You're my co-pilot/Not my god pilot." It's like they got hung up on the phrase "God is my co-pilot" one day and thought they'd turned a neat enough trick to put it in a song. They didn't.

"Little Mouth"--Bratty Carrie, brattier Corin. This was made for screaming, be it while by yourself or by yourself in a crowd. Cocksucker tease blues, only one dare necessary, one day it'll all turn around. One woman is every woman, whether she wants to be or not. Sleater-Kinney relish the reality.

"Anonymous"--Anonymity, I feel, is for the shitbirds. Brown-winged and scared to fly. Do any of you freaks remember 1996? Remember when no-name nuts had no realm to disgrace other than the letters section of the newspaper? Remember letters and newspapers? Fuck, I feel like my mom reminiscing on the Fireside Chats. Anonymity by force or choice, we're talking about the extermination of identity and that's a weak move to me. To me. Own it or lose it, I say.

(Incidentally, Lora Macfarlane's best drumming is featured on this song.)

"Stay Where You Are"--Still figuring out how to fit their dogs with invisible leashes. Carrie rides the guitars with a supreme queen poker face, while her insides--you know--just have to be breakdancing on tidal waves under a firework-blemished sky.

"Good Things"--The most heart-pulverizing track in their discography, least till they get back together (oh stop, it's as inevitable as Charlie Brown's failure). The guitars are the shoulder for Corin to soak with tears, 'cause it does not doubt to resist the pain.

A near-flawless reflection on the impact one person can make on your life. Self-aware yet self-assured ("It's a dumb song/But I'll write it anyway.") Corin certainly could have "sung better" on "Good Things," but why? Her performance, all flay and flutter, personifies the keen sting of regret.

"I Wanna Be Yr Joey Ramone"--Listen to this fuckin' thing, here; all slipping and sliding around the edges of the kitchen counter, discretely snatchin' some donut holes (who left the box out?!) and eatin' 'em ducky-style. Mainly Corin's baby, but Carrie is practically a sound effect on the chorus.

What does it all mean, PSK? Does the female protagonist want to be a male idol because the guys get to have all the fun and attention and glory? Or because the dudes get all the pussy? All I know for sure, this was the first time Sleater-Kinney's music came to my attention, and it was pretty much down to the Thurston Moore namedrop. Well done.

"Taking Me Home"--Pissed women and the men who piss on them. Punk-drenched distress funky fresh dressed to aggress, ready to crash the party. "I got me mixed up with somebody else."

"Taste Test"--Lora sings sweet under Corin, while Carrie tries to have the hostages freed by confusing their captor. It worked, I guess, 'cause I didn't remember seeing a news story stating otherwise. Lyrics are circuitous, the music less so.

"My Stuff"--In the immortal words of George Carlin, "Have you ever noticed how other peoples stuff is 'shit,' and your shit is 'stuff'?" The best crafted song on Call the Doctor, but not the best, and not even top three, really.

"I'm Not Waiting"--Stoic to start, permitting Corin to set certain terms. "I'm not waiting till I grow up to be a woman." Rejected music for a parody of 1950s instructional videos. Sleater-Kinney aren't so much into instruction as direction.

"Heart Attack"--Corin plays drums, Lora plays guitar. It shows.

There's a line here, "Walking into your house, cause I really want to figure you out," that resonates with me. I don't drive or bike, so I have ample opportunity to walk by homes that, especially in this nice weather, have open windows and doors. I only get to peek for a second, just long enough to catch a couch, a blaring TV, a table covered with...what is all that exactly? Who lives here? What's their story? I am about stories, 'cause everybody on Earth has at least three in their pocket at all times. Some of which will outlive the one who wears the pants.

That's not Carrie's angle here, though. This is hypochondria in bloom as a lethargic two-step towards the unimaginable. "Stress case undone/Preplanned, no fun." Everything makes our molecules come up short, everything clogs our arteries, everyone is out to get us, no one cares but you, nobody lives forever.

Call the Doctor signified progression without compromise. It was clear that Sleater-Kinney could go even farther. They just had to want it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fall Down on the World: The Music of Sleater-Kinney, Pt. 1--Pedal to the Bronze Medal


Writers more skilled/patient than myself can attempt to explain the Riot Grrl movement of the Nineties. People who were directly affected by scores of young women taking the world to task for injustice with cords and chords can try and recreate a nth of the experience. I don't know how differently I would have turned out if my teen self developed in an environment with easy access and exposure to the world of aggrieved feminists with ungodly volume at their disposal. I don't think about it; I found my outlet regardless.

Olympia, Washington was a key locale for the movement (Portland, Oregon and Washington DC being arguably the two next crucial) and it was there, in 1994, that members of Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 endeavored to make a side project the main focus. Instead of calling this band Sweet Murgatroyd, the trio looked to their practice space address for inspiration, and Sleater-Kinney was officially born.

Their debut record clocks in at just under 23 minutes. Brevity is soul.

"Don't Think You Wanna"--It would be a nice story if Sleater-Kinney started out as a blood-boiling powershack, but that defies the conventional wisdom of artistic evolution. Not yet are they way up in the sky, but the elements that would make them legends are apparent: Corin Tucker's defiant ululations and special dark rhythm guitar; Carrie Brownstein's special dark vocal delivery and defiant lead guitar; lyrical task-taking and the intelligent initiation of mischief; NO BASS ALLOWED.

Missing is a superlative drum sound. By their third album Sleater-Kinney would boast one of the greatest drummers alive, but until then, here's Lora Macfarlane.

"Don't Think You Wanna" is like an immaculately pressed sheet lain over a ratty mattress that some brat blew snot all over the night prior. The Bikini Kill influence--that splenetic posturing--reeks from this song.

"The Day I Went Away"--The inevitable title of Lora Macfarlane's autobiography.

SK fans discovering this album after the fact may be struck how similar the verse melody of this song is to "Good Things," a song that appears on their second record and one of the band's most enduring classics. If they aren't, they will certainly perk up at the presence of what would become the hallmark of Sleater Kinney's sound: dual vocal harmony/dueling vocal disharmony. Carrie and Corin occupy different floors of a hollowed-out halfway house.

"A Real Man"--A prime example of what Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear and pretty much every band of the Riot Grrl genre save for Bratmobile couldn't manage--precocious command of thought and action. (And even then, love Bratmobile as I do, their best never approached Sleater-Kinney's apex material.) Screaming and cursing is great, and I recommend it, but I didn't notice a lot of ALL CAPS and "fuck" in The Second Sex when I read it. This is not to say that women should make their point in a predetermined, "appropriate" fashion, but that there are a wide variety of methods. When Corin says "I don't wanna join your club/I don't want your kind of love," it's a plainly stated yet fantastic refutation of sexual norms, a resolute rebellion against hetero love as polished world ideal because it gives the world more hamsters for the wheel.

What is "a real man"? Sports fan, beer drinker, truck driver? Voracious reader, organic food consumer, Prius steerer? I can't believe--but I can--that people in this day and age use phrases like "a real man." My best friend is a beer drinking sports fan with an Equality sticker on his Accord. So is he like "almost a real man"? Please, learn my befuddled self.

"Her Again"--Tucker's sluggish retread tires me out, and Brownstein's lead is a Zeppelin, and it's almost a lost cause till the appearance of a chorus fit to crack the Earth's crust and make Mars Clay Pies. Imagine the power these songs would secrete if they had a real drummer!

"How to Play Dead"--Sleater-Kinney's lyrics would never be so crass again, which is both a nice thing and an unfortunate thing. "Clean up your mess/Then I'll suck your dick." This song brings to my mind the dilemma of power in sex; the acts of fellatio and cunnilingus can and have been construed to demean the giver as being at the mercilessness of the recipient. When I went through my own period of questioning the sexual expectations of myself and my (male) partner, I reached a detente within myself by considering both sides of the carnal coin. Did I think that the man I loved performing cunnilingus demeaned him? No, because to my mind subservience is not an automatically undesirable trait. In fact, I think that in the sensual realm, it's as close to an immaculate state as we mere fleshed-out marionettes can ever hope to attain. Same with blowjobs. If you care enough for and about the person, and you immerse yourself in the erotic universe you two are instantaneously creating, it becomes another segment that services the whole.

The title "How to Play Dead" distressingly describes too many experiences for women. Lay back and take it. Give give give and get a little if you're lucky. A death wish to the dumb and powerful instinct of so many!

"Be Yr Mama"--By far my favorite song here. It's dynamite. It sticks. It lashes the whip and moves to match approaching hips. All those who would let stomp, swing, and sweat...approach. Corin's vocals are an especially challenging listen here, but Carrie's lead patterns are so seductively smart that resistance is shattered into billions o' bits.

"Be Yr Mama" features some portentous shifts in mood and tone. The recipe's not all the way there yet. Yet.

"Sold Out"--The promise of diamonds.

"Slow Song"--Delivers what it promises, which cannot always be said for Papa Johns. Caveat emptor, y'all.

"Lora's Song"--That's back-to-back songs that are not only underwhelming, but also end in the word "song." I am beginning to think that in a better world, we would be making reference to "Sleater-Kinney's debut EP." Again, the title tells all, as the drummer steps up to the mic. Or rather, stays seated while the mic is brought to them. Given that Sleater-Kinney are the female equivalent of the Beatles, it only makes sense that this would happen at least once in their discography. Just like Ringo's alleged best, "Lora's Song" is like watching paint peel. It has a bit of a cult--a bit of a bite, in other words--and how much of that is revisionist sympathy and how much is people being tone deaf I cannot say for certain, as funding fell through early on for my proposed "Project To Figure Out Why the Hell Anyone Would Like the Drummers Song on the First Sleater Kinney Album."

"The Last Song"--Memorable for the chorus, which showcases (under red light) gut-imploding screams that Carrie would never try to match for the remainder of Sleater-Kinney's life. The last confrontation, the last damnation of the nameless useless, petulance directed at moral pestilence, can it be any ponder that their most ardent fans saw these women less as rock goddesses and more as blood relations?

So how to follow, then? A concept album about the iron woes of women since time immemorial featuring a prog-length epic about the lose-even-when-you-win scenario posited in the Pole Ax Theory? Yes, and no. Mainly no.