Doing this Web site has made me a compulsive completeist, so I felt compelled to listen to and review this self-titled debut album after reviewing all their others, even though every account of it I've read considers it a significant notch below their subsequent records. Consider this a confirmation, as Sleater-Kinney, an EP by today's standards with 10 songs clocking in at around 21 minutes, shows only glimpses of their future greatness. Their sparse, low-key guitar churn is present on songs such as "Don't Think You Wanna" and "Be Yr Mama," and pretty mellower passages make up the bulk of "Her Again," "Slow Song," and "Lora's Song" (which is dreamy but a bit faster paced), but few of these songs really stand out. Well, "A Real Man" definitely does stand out, but only because I've heard few if any such graphic odes to lesbianism ("I don't want to join your club, I don't want your kind of love"). Fortunately, the band are usually a bit more subtle than that, and if anything the album is too restrained, containing too few of those Corin Tucker outbursts that can be so thrilling. Plus, Carrie Brownstein is underutilized as a singer, and only on "The Day I Went Away" - probably the best song along with the melodic, poppy "How To Play Dead" - do their trademark harmonies come to the fore. No mere novices, this is still a solid album, as the ladies had already served apprenticeships in bands such as Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 before joining forces in Sleater-Kinney. But Sleater-Kinney is more a blueprint for the better things that followed than a completely satisfying album in its own right.
Call The Doctor (Chainsaw ‘96) Rating: A
Formed around former lesbian lovers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, these riot grrrls are arguably the best self-contained all-female band ever. Their sound is based around an edgy twin guitar attack (with no bass) and creative dynamics, while Tucker’s incredibly powerful vocals bellow lyrics that have an angry feminist angle. The menacing guitars can give way to a ringing melodicism on songs such as “Anonymous” and “Good Things,” while imaginative interlocking vocals (the coolest offbeat harmonies since Alice In Chains) also help make several of these songs rise to thrilling climaxes. Sonic Youth is definitely an influence, but their faster paced songs also owe a debt to the The Ramones, a fact that the band humorously notes on the great “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” Even the album's mellower, dreamy songs, such as "Taste Test" and "Heart Attack," have an intense edge to them, and propulsive rhythms push many of these songs into overdrive come chorus time. The cumulative effect of hard-hitting songs such as “Call The Doctor,” “Little Mouth,” and "I'm Not Waiting" is damn near overwhelming at times; for example, when the title track surges at the 1:30 mark it's simply as good as rock music gets, and things get even better when Tucker goes nuts on the chorus. Granted, Tucker's voice can seem a little shrill over the course of the entire album, but the sweeter voiced Brownstein also sings, and this consistent collection is only 30 minutes long. Perhaps they could hire a bass player to boost their bottom end, but this very limitation is part of what makes the band so unique, and the distinctive Call The Doctor announced Sleater-Kinney as a major new force in the alternative rock underground.
Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars ‘97) Rating: A
With an excellent new drummer in tow (Janet Weiss, whose other band Quasi is also worth checking out), Dig Me Out again features stop and start dynamics with a driving punk fury, and angular dual guitars that anchor powerhouse rhythms. The band also retains their knack for imaginatively intense choruses that often feature unconventional harmony tradeoffs, but the songs, though still edgy and abrasive at times, are generally lighter in tone and more melodic than on Call The Doctor. For example, "One More Hour" and "Dance Song '97" could both be described as new wave punk songs, "Little Babies" contains a catchy bubblegum pop chorus, "Buy Her Candy" is a simple but melodic mellower pleasure, and the energetic "Words And Guitar" is also quite pretty in parts. On the flip side, the rocking title track gets right down to business, and "Turn It On" features a great escalating groove and a phenomenal vocal from Tucker a la "Call The Doctor." "Heart Factory" offers further proof of Sleater-Kinney's explosiveness, while "It's Enough" and "Not What You Want" are other intense rhythm-based rave ups. Fact is, any complaints that I have about this album are exceedingly minor. Maybe two or three tracks are less than stellar, but none of the songs are less than good, and Tucker’s dynamic lead vocals and the duo's point-counterpoint harmonies are always intriguing if not downright inspired. In short, though much has been made of this band's riot grrrl roots and lesbian lifestyle, more should be made of the fact that they’re simply one of most thrilling and flat-out best rock bands around today.
The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars ‘99) Rating: A
Having received nearly unanimous critical acclaim for Call The Doctor and Dig Me Out, both among the best albums of the decade, expectations ran high for The Hot Rock, and the album was greeted with more mixed though generally still positive reviews. The album certainly is a comedown from previous efforts in terms of raw energy and excitement, and the fact that the band downplays their dazzling harmonies is a little disappointing. However, great back and forth vocals do appear on "Burn, Don't Freeze," "Banned From The End Of The World," and "Get Up," and this was another excellent album overall that lives up to the band’s lofty reputation. Like other "alternative" artists before them, such as Pavement, Sonic Youth, and even Pearl Jam, Sleater-Kinney has reached “artistic maturity,” which means that they now rely more on evocative melodies and subtle guitar shadings (“Hot Rock” and “Don’t Talk Like,” for example) than on the thrilling noise of yesteryear, as the band only occasionally ("Start Together" and "End Of You," for example) surges with that old punk fury. As such, Carrie Brownstein sings more, which is fitting considering that she has the softer voice, yet despite this album being more atmospheric and prettier than past efforts, the band can still be plenty edgy sound wise - Weiss’ incredibly imaginative drum parts often lead the way along with their angular intermingling guitars, which feature just enough fuzzy feedback - while remaining provocative lyrically. That said, “A Quarter To Three” is absolutely gorgeous, and "The Size Of Our Love" and "Memorize Your Lines" even feature prominent use of violins, while the album's relatively expansive 40+ minute running time further attests to the band’s ability (and increasing willingness) to stretch out. As such, aside from maybe a couple of lesser songs on the album's second half, The Hot Rock provides further evidence that Sleater-Kinney can be the rare punk rock band who refuse to stay in one place and who will grow up with grace.
All Hands On The Bad One (Kill Rock Stars ‘00) Rating: A-
After three straight superlative albums in a row, I suppose a slight letdown was inevitable, especially considering the band's prolific recording pace and myriad side projects (in addition to Quasi there’s Tucker’s Cadallaca, as well as Brownstein’s the Spells and the Tentacles). All Hands On The Bad One sees a further mellowing of the band on their most polished and accessible album yet. However, though it has its fair share of standout songs, "Leave You Behind" being the most obvious example - how was this brilliantly sunny pop song not a hit? - this lighter toned, more low-key album lacks the rough edges and excitement of their previous projects; there isn't a single monster surge a la "Call The Doctor," "Turn It On," or "End Of You." Fortunately, songs such as “The Ballad Of A Ladyman,” the title track, and “You’re No Rock ‘n Roll Fun” are still catchy and fun, and the band's by now expected stop-and-start dynamics, pretty and varied intermingling guitar parts, impressive (often tribal sounding) drums, and inventive vocals (which rely more on richly layered girl group harmonies than their typical back-and-forth vocal tradeoffs) makes this another very good if less meaty outing. After all, “Ironclad” and “Youth Decay” provide fast surging punk rock, “The Professional” (all 1:30 of it) is fast, fun, and just offbeat and catchy enough, “Was It A Lie?” is pretty and wise, “Male Model” has that droney Sonic Youth-type of intensity but with girl group harmonies, and “The Swimmer” is a pretty, shimmering ballad. So, the majority of this album is really good, as their songwriting continues to improve as the band expands their sound into something more easily digestible (as such, this seems to be a fair amount of people’s favorite Sleater-Kinney record). Still, a couple of songs never really ignite or get going a little too late (“#1 Must Have” and “Milkshake ‘n Honey,” for example), and overall the album sounds a little tame by their ultra-intense high standards.
One Beat (Kill Rock Stars ‘02) Rating: A
I don't know if I made this clear before, but Sleater-Kinney are an acquired taste to many, in large part due to the eccentric vocals of Corin Tucker, one of my favorite female vocalists ever. Personally, I love this band, and though All Hands On The Bad One wasn't quite up to their usual exceptionally high standards, Sleater-Kinney are back with a vengeance on One Beat, easily one of the best albums of 2002. The first thing that strikes me about the album is that Janet Weiss' drumming is simply amazing. Male or female, she's one of the best drummers around today, and her militant thump puts an instant charge into explosive and evocative numbers like "One Beat," "Far Away," and "Combat Rock." Other stellar songs such as "Oh!" and "O2" hark back to the pop tendencies that came to the fore on All Hands On The Bad One, as Sleater-Kinney attempt to bring forth the best of both styles. In addition, the highly personal, politically charged lyrics are resonant as usual, with "Far Away" and "Combat Rock" describing their views on 9/11 and its aftermath, predictably pulling no punches in the process ("and the President hides, while working men rush in to give their lives"; "dissent's not treason but they talk like it's the same"). Always looking to add new wrinkles to their repertoire, the band continues to expand their sound, integrating synthesizers, horns, theremin, violins, cellos, and even male vocals in an unobtrusive but successful manner. Granted, as per usual perhaps there are a couple of lesser songs thrown into the mix, but this just means that for all the band's consistent excellence they still haven't delivered their one indisputable masterpiece yet. Still, there are plenty of other potential highlights here ("The Remainder," "Step Aside," “Light Rail Coyote,” "Funeral Song," and "Sympathy," for example), and as long as they keep releasing albums as intensely emotional, accessible, and resolutely adult (another theme that crops up throughout the album is Tucker’s recent motherhood) as One Beat, you won't hear me complaining. More, please...
The Woods (Sub Pop ‘05) Rating: A
Signing on to Sub Pop, Sleater-Kinney worked with uber producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, many others) and delivered their loudest, most abrasive, and arguably best album ever. It’s quite a departure, really, as the band embraces psychedelia, classic rock (think Zep, Hendrix, etc.), guitar solos, distortion, and longer, looser songs at slower tempos, all while maintaining their visceral anger and intensity. The songs are less structured and catchy than usual (the point-counterpoint harmonies have again disappeared) so they take some getting used to, and Brownstein’s guitar hero moves will probably be an acquired taste to you less open-minded punk rockers. But repeat plays rewards patient listeners, as the band’s experimental chance taking and embrace of dissonance offers more than a few genuinely exciting moments, and really, who else is still delivering thrills and chills seven albums into their career in this current day and age? Although they ditch the political sermonizing of One Beat, as per usual their lyrics are again worth poring over (quality example: “on the day the duck was born, the fox was watching all along”), and there are quite a few firsts on this album. For one thing, just check out the guitar sound on the opening track, “The Fox” - it’s freakin’ huge, I’m talking My Bloody Valentine/Primal Scream circa XTRMNTR huge. Brownstein at times seems to temporarily channel the ghost of guitar great Carlos Santana on “Wilderness,” and she really lets the dissonant feedback fly on the funky, hard-hitting “What’s Mine Is Yours.” “Jumpers,” maybe the best suicide jumper tale since The Replacements’ “The Ledge,” is really different, especially the hard to describe vocals, while “Modern Girl” is such a melodic, upbeat sing along anthem that you don’t even realize how sarcastic it is. “Entertain” zings all the current Gang Of Four wannabe flavor of the month bands and the audience that lets them get away with such lazy recycling, “Rollercoaster” is hard-charging and tuneful, and “Steep Air” has a slower, more atmospheric guitar grind. Last but certainly not least, “Let’s Call It Love” is an at times exhilarating if at times frustratingly self-indulgent 11-minute monstrosity (with an epic 6-minute guitar jam) that segues into “Night Light,” which provides a fittingly intense but more low-key ending.. Whew - it’s exhausting just describing this album let alone listening to it! Indeed, The Woods is not easy listening; it’s uncompromising and demanding and it asks a lot from its listeners. Still, though they look back for the inspiration to move forward, I for one applaud a band who are still out there taking chances, who still have such respect for their audience, their material, and each other (Weiss is again an absolute powerhouse), and, most of all, who still find different, exciting ways to express themselves long after most of their supposed peers have broken up or petered out. Note: Unfortunately, sometime in 2006 the band posted the following note on their Web site: "After eleven years as a band, Sleater-Kinney have decided to go on indefinite hiatus." I hope they come back, but if not, well, they had quite a run as one of rock’s best bands from 1996-2005. Update: The band did come back with the widely acclaimed No Cities To Love in 2015, which I hope to review eventually.
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