Killer rock stars

Sleater-Kinney are too good to admit to being rock's best, last hope

One gray day last October, while driving up Interstate 405 from Portland to Seattle, I turned off the highway at an exit marked Sleater-Kinney. It was the same kind of impulse that causes certain types of visitors in London to take their shoes off and walk across Abbey Road, or photograph themselves in front of the Battersea Power Station, featured on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals. Like those landmarks, which are almost invisible to eyes not already primed with knowledge of their rock-and-roll significance, the Sleater-Kinney exit is not exactly a fount of romance. It looks like hundreds of thousands of other freeway exits that dot the American landscape, a bleak and familiar nexus of gas stations and strip malls and a road leading off to the woods.

Only a rather terrific leap of the imagination could imbue such a scene with drama. Then again, leaps of the imagination are de rigeur in rock and roll, and in Sleater-Kinney, the trio named after said exit, the leaps have been particularly grandiose. There is, after all, something intrinsically uplifting about the idea of a cute, confident, all-female power trio that rocks as hard--and says as much--as The Jam or The Who. Sleater-Kinney is the fulfillment, the embodiment, of that fantasy--the leap of faith, right into a valley of broken glass.

In three short years, the band has intrigued and charmed its followers enough that a quick trip off the road at the exit is not so uncommon or uncalled for. And The Hot Rock, Sleater-Kinney's fourth release, is as ardent as its predecessors, the kind of record that turns nonbelievers into fans and fans into holy-rollers. On the album, due in stores next Tuesday, singer Corin Tucker's Poly Styrene-esque voice swoops and hollers catchphrases--"Hot, hot!" she gasps in the middle of one--twining with bandmate and guitarist Carrie Brownstein's prettier, more girly voice for a sound that burrows deep into the psyche.

The band's forte is lyrical evocation and dit-dot-dash guitar parts, an intricate interplay of dueling vocals and non-chordal guitar parts almost mathematic in its precision. You won't catch them toying around with either irony or corn, the twin curse of today's musical zeitgeist: Sleater-Kinney is easily the least emotionally embarrassing band around. But Sleater-Kinney is not by any means a pop band. Tucker's voice has a strident quality often associated with Bikini Kill and the riot-grrrl bands--not surprising, since Tucker's first band, Heavens To Betsy, was one of the core acts of that movement during the early '90s, though it released only one album, 1994's Calculated. (Brownstein had her own riot-grrrl band, Excuse 17, which released two discs in 1995.) But never does the band sound forced, angry, or sweet--the three words one most associates with all-women rock bands, the three words that tend to hold women's music back from the kind of raw believability that characterizes more macho rock.

That's not to say that emotions aren't present in their work. But while love is an oft-repeated theme ("Baby, don't you leave me/Baby, don't you go," Tucker shrieks on the opening track, "Start Together"), liberty is an equally important theme--liberty of the brain from the shackles of devotion. "Fight for a strong heart," Tucker sings on "The Size of Our Love," and it's excellent advice. When she yells, "Jump in, jump out," one assumes she means: Jump in, jump out of love. "I'm not the girl wanted/I'm not the one you'll keep" she exhorts in the title cut, which uses a jewel theft as a metaphor for the duplicity of love; in the background, Brownstein mutters over and over, "You want me to feel counterfeit or real?"

On the song "A Quarter to Three," perhaps the record's most accomplished and melodic number, the background ooohs and aaahs faintly and surprisingly evoke the Pips, the Supremes, even the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang." Tucker's voice is considered her great strength, but a more immediately likable virtue is the sheer poesy of her lyrics. "There's a part of me that works just like a charm," she pleads on "Burn Don't Freeze," promising that the future is now, or tomorrow. Most startling of all is "Get Up," which quotes Sonic Youth's "Song For Karen": "Goodbye small hands, goodbye small heart, goodbye small head," Tucker repeats.

Brownstein is rather dismissive of the reference when asked about the genesis of this allusion. She really seems not to know the song in question--a reminder that, at age 24, she's a whole generation removed from a world that knows its Sonic Youth LPs by heart. To that generation (OK, my generation), the visual image of bassist Kim Gordon--gaunt, blonde, aloof, and, inevitably, married to the guitar player--was as good as it got when considering female role models. Brownstein was luckier, citing early run-ins with Heather Lewis of Beat Happening, Jean Smith of Mecca Normal, and Kim Warnick of the Fastbacks as proof that "there were women, very different women, making music. It just seemed so attainable to me."

Brownstein is quick to acknowledge that the attainability had to do with being caught up in a certain time and place: Olympia, Washington, in the early 1990s, birthplace of both Nirvana and the riot-grrrl movement. The latter was a big influence on both Brownstein's and Tucker's first bands, and although the movement itself wound up somewhat discredited, or at least dismissed, its eventual result has been bands such as Sleater-Kinney. That's more than just a little victory.

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