Killer rock stars

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.

As a 17-year-old freshman at Western Washington University in Bellingham--and with no access whatsoever to the beery, barry, boy-ridden garage-rock scene that emanated from that city--Brownstein began writing letters to riot grrrls in Olympia. She eventually transferred there.

"Olympia is a very tight-knit community, very liberal-minded, anti-materialist, anti-corporate, and very closely allied to Evergreen State," Brownstein says. "If you go there, you come out much more dogmatic then you go in, because you've been given these tools and armed with a discourse which shapes your world. You know you have to look for inspiration in the very boundaries of society. It's so hard to find good examples of art in the mainstream, and not everybody has access to those examples. I'm just really lucky that I never even see Jewel or Hole videos."

Would that we could all say that. Would that we had all been to universities in places where, as Brownstein says, the borders are a bit more out there. Evergreen State has a close association with K Records and Kill Rock Stars, both of which have always encouraged collaborative projects and private entrepreneurship. It's a remarkably creative world, but also a small and insular one. That may be why upon graduation (with a combo major of film and feminism), Brownstein and Tucker decided to travel for a few months. They chose Australia as their destination, and it was, Brownstein acknowledges now, a "totally crazy, youthful vision--things seemed really possible. I mean, if we'd had any foresight, we'd have gone to New Zealand."

Thanks to K Records, they hooked up with an Australian drummer named Lora McFarlane and booked a handful of totally haphazard gigs there--gigs, Brownstein now recalls, populated by anarchists and all-girl bands that sounded like L7. Something about the distance between the women and home inspired them. They began recording in Melbourne, and the music they made there became the songs on their 1995 debut, Sleater-Kinney, and was also the genesis of their next record, 1996's Call the Doctor. It seemed, Brownstein says now, "kind of special and different."

Sleater-Kinney was the obvious product of Olympia, and it didn't--still doesn't, actually--sound much different from a number of other bands in the Portland-Olympia-Kill-Rock-Stars-K-Records-Chainsaw-Records orbit. (Team Dresch, whose leader, Donna Dresch, originally signed Sleater-Kinney to her Chainsaw label, is a good example.) Yet just as Nirvana sounded like so many of its influences--the Pixies, Mudhoney, Soul Asylum, Black Flag--only to finally surpass them, so, too, did Sleater-Kinney quite suddenly transcend everything that came before. Texans might hear in Sleater-Kinney echoes of mid-'80s Austin-based band Glass Eye, alongside the slashing rhythms of British bands such as the Raincoats, the Slits, the Bush Tetras, and Delta 5. Brownstein claims The Jam as her biggest influence.

Sleater-Kinney has, over the past two years, become something of a mythical rock-and-roll band--adored by all who come into contact with it. No matter that Call the Doctor was raw and sloppy; no matter that its 1997 follow-up, Dig Me Out, was atonal and complex. The more out the band got, the more in it became. Sleater-Kinney--which would welcome the addition of Quasi's drummer Janet Weiss in 1996--is a throwback to the days when the word alternative meant something that was in opposition to the prevailing musical landscape and when allying yourself with such a thing was an assertion of personal dignity.

That may be why the band is also hyped and lauded by the media to an almost suspicious degree, in a way that even Brownstein circumspectly calls "one-dimensional." Reviews of Sleater-Kinney's music tend to treat it as a construct, rather than a band. They invariably use irritating and off-putting words such as "dialectic," "dichotomy," "meta-music"--even that most horrid and meaningless word of all, "post-rock."

It's the type of overpraise that, on a bad day, could be referred to as nostalgia. As rock music moves further away from the do-it-yourself ideal of a four-piece punk sound, critics become ever more hysterically enamored of Sleater-Kinney's simplicity, its intensity, its passion. They're being billed as Rock's Great Last Stand, saving the world from heartless techno and soulless alternarock. And to see Sleater-Kinney onstage is to simply love them; it's to be reminded of The Good Old Days, when bands were scruffy, atavistic, and wholly unself-conscious. It's to recall a time when three chords were enough to write a whole new bible of beliefs.

Maybe Sleater-Kinney is the next--last--best thing. I doubt they'd be the ones to say it. Instead, Corin Tucker once said that a person can "love rock and roll and also be enraged by it." It's a wonderful statement of intent, the perfect paradigm for the shortcomings of the mainstream--and the indie-rock--world. And if that phrase sums up Sleater-Kinney's attitude toward its own work, no wonder the band's so damned good. After all, if self-examination creates a life worth living, then it will certainly create a band worth hearing.


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