Thursday, June 11, 2009

Liberation Legends: Sleater-Kinney

The first tune I heard by Sleater-Kinney was “Oh!” on The vocal reminded me of maybe the B-52s a little, or some mid-60s girl group. It was funny and sexy and really different. At first it sounded like a girl telling her boyfriend No – but soon I realized that's not it, she's coaching him! Had to hear it again and again. I started checking out their other material, and every cut was different, then started buying CDs, largely off eBay because they were hard to find. Still haven't got “The Hot Rock” although I've heard most of the cuts, and I don't have the pre-”Dig Me Out” discs, “Sleater-Kinney” or “Call the Doctor”. But Sleater-Kinney has affected my music listening and awarenesses for the past half-decade.
Sleater-Kinney is one of the strongest groups of our time (turn of the Millennium), creatively and musically. I believe it was Greil Marcus, who has a rep as The Guru among rock writers, who did an article on them in Time Magazine representing that they were the best band in America. (It was a “Best of America” project in Time in 2001.)
Facts in case you don't already know: S-K is/was an all-girl/woman group generally considered to be punk or post-punk style (sorta) in-your-face feminists, which was named for a freeway off-ramp near Corin and Carrie's homes. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are longtime friends; they had a love affair but Corin was much more emotionally invested which Carrie only realized after they broke up as a couple. They were friends before and obviously still are. They each do guitar and vocals, but Corin usually leads on vocals and Carrie on guitar. They did other bands earlier, and had some modest success with this one but it was their fourth drummer, Janet Weiss, who brought new energy and inventiveness late in 1996 that helped propel them to international cult heroines (or at least international cult heroines who were far better known). The first disc she did with them was 1997's “Dig Me Out”. The title tune blasted me awake in the morning on my radio/CD alarm for awhile, opening with dissonant guitar and then the surprisingly varied drums and Corin's urgent singing. “One more Hour” was about Corin's feelings at the aforementioned breakup. “Turn It On” was another mightily sexy number, and seems to be about a male (“Oh it's too hard – it's too good...”) who turns her on even though she doesn't truly trust him. (“Why do your words have to ring so false... why do your eyes have to change so much...?”) “It's Enough” might also be, depending on how one takes it. “Little Babies” is the closest thing to a general negative review of males, IMHO. There are a lot of possible double entendes, in different directions... “Not What You Want” has the singer encountering a guy friend and asking him to take her for a drive and to keep driving faster. She's totally stressing. He's asking What's wrong and apparently whether it's him, and her reply is “It's not what you want”. Which can be taken a couple of ways. Like, My feelings aren't headed in the direction you want, forget that, and/or What you want has nothing to do with what I'm going through. Of course this isn't his idea of a good time, but what I'm hearing here is that this is HER stress, she owns it and No he is not the cause. Everything in HER life is not about HIM.
I hear a basically similar idea on “Youth Decay” from “All Hands On The Bad One”. “Acid Tooth / It's got nothing to do with you / But if you wanna watch me chew / My teeth are cutting you out...” This (with the context) sounds like she doesn't want to be close to men at least right now. I'm okay with that. The writer actually recognizes that all men are not the source of her problems, despite complaining in the same song about her father judging her and her mother harshly. I've heard women and men (both “liberal” and “conservative”) say basically that if anything is wrong in a woman's life or psyche it's the nearest man's fault. Lemme tell ya, that gets old fast. I'd much rather deal with the honest feelings of a woman who wants an equal relationship rather than one who says the man should make all major decisions and then gives you holy hell if it doesn't turn out to be what she wanted (and what you were supposed to have guessed). What I'm saying is that the perspective here is reasonable and fair; these are not man-haters here.
BTW, Corin and Janet have been married to guys, Corin still is, and Janet is still friends with her ex and does a project band named Quasi with him. Carrie happily babysits Corin's son Marshall and is his favorite because she will roughouse with him.
Most of the early cuts I've heard, from before Dig Me Out, are so much shriller they're physically painful for me to listen to. Women's hearing is possibly more attuned to enjoy it. They have said that harshness was part of what they aimed for at the time to make a point.
The title tune on “All Hands on The Bad One” is social protest at its finest, skewering precisely how proper conservative society condemns those who act or look different while doing the same stuff themselves (sometimes a couple of years later), with an undertone of social protesters themselves being a particular target as seen on the CD cover. (Similar idea to “Call The Doctor”.) “You're no Rock and Roll Fun” is about a certain pop star, reputed to be based on an encounter with Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys, who is too full of himself to play around with “the girl band”. It's playful (of course) and has its own good kickin' fun. So is another song about the other person not letting her get close, “Ironclad”. Overall impression: They're in control of their own destinies and refuse to be controlled or be victims.
At least once per CD they tend to do a rage-against-the-unfairness-of-the-music-machine and at least one desire-for-a-woman number, the majority (?) of both done by Carrie. Sometimes the desire tunes are poignant - “Buy Her Candy” comes to mind, and the near-desperate certainty of “Dance Song '97”: “You're the one that I saw/You're the one that I want...” Sometimes they're just awkward musically (Milkshake'N'Honey) or conceptually (“Prisstina” on “One Beat” is about a totally non-socialized non-playful college girl who walks past a club, hears rock-n-roll, goes in and is instantly converted from celibate scholar to gay. Right... ). There's a relentless, often bleak analyzing of truth as seen by the writer: “Do you see her face/When she's gone/Sometimes so bright/Your heart just stops...” (Jenny). But there is also the power of that truth to rise above the present state of things or the present (former?) relationship: “...It is brave to feel/It is brave to be alive...” (Things You Say).

All three are individually bright musicians with actual creativity, world-class. Together they're a Tour-de-Force. Carrie is an intense, impressive lead guitarist who plays like she's awake, and can do both sarcastic and some surprisingly subtle vocals as well. Corin is the even more urgent wail that will blast your hair back, yet also versatile, and probably the most political in her writing. And no slouch on the guitar either – she and Carrie do complex interplay anytime it seems appropriate. Janet Weiss is among the very top few drummers I have heard in the past 50+ years. She is not merely “filling the holes”, but is an important part of the structure of the music, and those beats and patterns are living things. She can also do the more repetitive pounding rock very effectively. In the videos I've seen, Janet looks totally focused and in control, yet also getting really into it, head swiveling and hair swinging almost straight out at times. Not merely skilled, but a passionate artist. Yeah.
My favorite S-K CD is “One Beat” from 2002. Besides the usual pean of praise for Rock, for Their Rock, for Grrrl Power Rock etc. (One Beat, Step Aside), it has the spookily accurate Faraway about the beginning of the Iraq war (?) with the bombs falling, written before the event because Corin saw it coming, and Combat Rock, about the war-faring of our country and the media/political popularization of it as the One Right Attitude of the Loyal American Citizen. Corin did a show with Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam in Denver at the beginning of the Iraq war and they were booed by 10,000 people for their political stance – and they kept going, in the face of death threats and all. Gutsy and earnest people.
There are plenty of relationship postmortems too... “The Remainder”, “Funeral Song”. There's the eerie feminist identity-of-the-self versus the image shell “Hollywood Ending”, and the environmental “O2”.
The last song on One Beat, “Sympathy”, is Corin's frank portrait of her feelings and thoughts in a terrible, amazing time a few years ago when her first child came 9 weeks early. It is ragged and raw and real and should pull tears out of a turnip. It did from me.
The events include: Doctor with long face giving bad prognosis (they were losing him), a new mother's fear and anger and cry for help from a God she barely knows exists, or at least has her doubts about, and a glimpse of what the results and her thoughts were, after. Hint: Corin's firstborn son is still a strong, healthy, roughousing little boy with none of the long-lasting problems that often come with this stage of prematurity. The lady is utterly honest about what she understands of what happened, and about what she really doesn't understand. Which puts her light-years ahead of many overtly “religious” people in my book.
God is not a political property; He/She loves screaming liberal feminist rock singers too. Just in case you hadn't heard.

Which brings us to the latest (last?) album, The Woods. Everyone has their opinion, this is mine. To compare it with their previous CDs:
All the albums from Dig me Out forward through All Hands on The Bad One, The Hot Rock and One Beat were produced by John Goodmanson on the Kill Rock Stars label. They were very personal, very Carrie-Corin-Janet personal. I wasn't in love with every cut, but I had a great liking for the totality. There were always songs that spoke to me somehow. Then came “The Woods” on Sub Pop in 2006, produced by David Fridmann. Contrary to the Sub Pop blurb for the album on the S-K MySpace site, I'm not afraid of things being new. A new album by S-K is always different than the last. That's cool. What's not cool with me is that Fridmann did not like the Sleater-Kinney I liked, and was determined to change their sound to suit himself. The band gave it their all-out effort. This guy is supposed to be big-time or something like that. Maybe it really is what they wanted to do. But most of the tunes just don't seem as heartfelt and real and personal. Rollercoaster is almost there. Steep Air may actually be there. And the plaintive Night Light sounds something like certain cuts of the old S-K, like The Swimmer from All Hands on the Bad One but different. But unlike any Sleater-Kinney CD before, this one overall left me feeling a sense of loss and sadness, and not just because of the self-consciously dark subject matter. It felt like it was an album by Fridmann, not by Carrie, Corin and Janet. They just worked there. Am I the only one who feels like this? They're not saying anything like this in interviews, so maybe it's only my opinion. I should probably listen again, try more to get into it, but rarely desire to.
Then the announcement in 2007 that the band is on indefinite hiatus. Everyone is doing their own thing. This happens, sure. But I wonder if the pressures of working toward an artificial end had anything to do with it.

Sleater-Kinney as a band seems not to have been on MySpace in a year and a half. Here are some URLs anyway.



Further Links on a Sleater-Kinney webring (see, webrings aren't all porn popups) – and some of 'em even work.


Band Members Today:

Today, Carrie seems to be writing. She has a music blog on NPR's site; one of them is specifically on being a musical contrarian. That sounds like her... Carrie's position as an “Indy” is well reinforced there. Anyway, she really has more thought-provoking depth the more I read. Worth the look.
Maybe I'm just not looking in the right places, but is Carrie doing the musician thing as a professional gig these days? If so, it seems to be a well-kept secret. If you find her playing on something, I'd like to hear about it. She did a side project in 1999 with Mary Timony called The Spells.

Corin seems to be collaborating with other musician friends on a selective basis. S-K has worked with Pearl Jam in the past (has opened for them) and Corin most of all. Doing gigs like this where she's part of the show but but can also step back give her a chance to be with her family more than touring full-time with S-K plus maybe a side project or two (Cadallaca, 1997 through 2005?).

Janet is still doing the “Quasi” group project with ex-husband Sam Coomes. Like in S-K, she comes in on vocals, once in a while. I have “When the Going Gets Dark” by them. I wouldn't call it rock and roll. I wouldn't call it Marvin either. It sounds like a collage of folk-protest and a train wreck. I think I like it. “I Don't Know You Anymore” seems real and desolate. “Peace and Love” is about the power of those things. And “Poverty Sucks”, about integrity versus financial success in the System, is wryly funny. Actually, most all of 'em are.
“Never give up, never give in – Poverty sucks but it ain't no sin...” Love that line.
They have a new CD coming out soonly, with Joanna from the Jicks on bass. It helps the mind not to fragment so badly.

Janet was also working with the Jicks on the side when in Sleater-Kinney; now she's full-time with them. Malkmus' vocals tend toward the “cracking voice is more real” approach – something Coomes pushes much farther. I'm of the position that such a device is artistically useful when used occasionally, not all the blinkin' time. But that's me.

An independent news blog on Sleater-Kinney Members, “Tiny Suns Infused With Sour”:

Band Members

Carrie (Profile is private, but the photo is her):

For her thoughts, check out Carrie's “Monitor Mix” blog on the NPR site:



"Totally Janet" Fansite:

The Gothamist

Band Sites - Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks: (Members: Stephen, Janet, Joanna Bolme, Mike Clark)

Quasi Band Members: Sam Coomes, Janet Weiss, Joanna Bolme

Quasi Official Site:

Quasi Official MySpace Site:

Quasi Fansite:

About Eagle and Talon and Sleater and Kinney

Lots of music columns and blogs have already made the comparison of EAT and Sleater-Kinney. Eagle And Talon seem to admire S-K; in my intro article on Eagle And Talon I mentioned the tribute pics and such. They have philosophical and scholarly and in-the-real-world involvement with feminism and as nearly as I can tell, bisexuality (?). And some of their riffs seem to be influenced by S-K, especially the deliberate dissonance that shows up every now and then. They show the radical, smart, artsy-stark originality that characterized the Sleater-Kinney approach. But that originality is their own. They're less concerned with being the all-girl band; they use males in the band although it's clearly the Kim and Alice show. Their controlled musical chaos is just as real but different, and often smoother than S-K. They can be spare and they can let loose an amazingly rich sound. And in the concert clips I've seen, they seem to having more fun with it. Off the wall thought # 483: As much as I like their male drummer's work, I can't help wondering what playing a set with Janet Weiss would sound like.
Another angle on EAT vs. S-K: More cerebral, more humor, more interested in keeping the music moving forward consistently, yet more dynamics going on in a given song, I think. Kim's vocals tend to be lilting/chirpy and sneakily, playfully sarcastic at times rather than the rollerball dynamo Corin's approach tends toward in social commentary. I like EAT for many of the same reasons as I like S-K, but for other reasons too - Eagle and Talon is not a Sleater-Kinney clone. They are fresh, bright and worth some serious listening, for themselves. And they're just getting started.

While I'm here, I owe you and EAT a correction. I honestly think the lyrics sound like what I said, but I must respect the Authoress and her intention. Kim wrote:

“after reading your post I just had to let you know what I'm really trying
to say in hot caught he he!!

"I like women, I like mannequins, and I don't build fires for myself"

although I have to admit your interpretation is definitely more exciting:
“I like women... I like men in kilts – A little bit of fire, for myself...”

Blame it on the Scottish side of my genes I suppose. Correct me, correct me... but be careful, I might like it.

Sleater-Kinney's Different Drummer, or one of them:
Lora (a/k/a Laura) MacFarlane

The first two CDs by S-K (which I don't have but have heard some cuts) had Lora MacFarlane drumming. When Sleater-Kinney did their “Call the Doctor” tour in 1996 (?) the drummer was Tori (Toni?) Gogin who was pretty dang good. Lora was expanding a side project named The Ninetynine. And somewhere in there was Misty Farrell as drummer.
Lora was born in Scotland (surprise, surprise) and her family moved to Australia when she was quite young.  It was there that she developed her drumming, and her songwriting, and released some very unique material both as a limited-edition album CDs and as individual recordings. She worked as a guest musician (?) with the Brautigans and Manic Pizza, and did some recording with a couple of friends in various modes under various names: Sea Haggs, Keckle, Popemobile... there was a very rare CD, Jelly, which cuts can be heard here: http://dev।

Don't go there if it bothers you to hear a teenage girl exploring her sexual thoughts and intentions, as several of the songs do (and she sounds even younger). There's a wonderful freshness and candor in it without being crude, IMHO. (Some would argue the point concerning “Seasaw”, but that's them.) There's also a tune that MIGHT have a similar application, about a “Beastie” which is being celebrated in song and possibly taking part in that, and then suddenly it's out of control and there's screaming. Interesting... I hadn't been that shocked at where a tune went since some early Pink Floyd. Like the one where Syd Barrett (I think) is murmering into the mike so you get really close to the speaker and then there's this “bloody murder” type screaming? Or another, “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict”? Like that, only quite different.

Today with the Ninetynine, her affinity for the experimental is still healthy, and bringing in another person on drums allows her to do more chromatic percussion instrument work and vocals. There are a few videos on YouTube with Ninetynine … here are a couple of them. Lora is on vocal and vibraphone and has a drummer who looks like a wild man playing, who pounds the skins very well. And Oyeah – lately she has been using the more conventional spelling of her name, now “Laura”.

Official MySpace page (Note the “different” main graphic pics):

Group site:

Members at the mo (lineup may vary):
Laura MacFarlane
Cameron Potts
Meg Butler
Iain McIntyre


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