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Olympia-based rock band.

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How To Rock And Roll

  • Dec 18, 2009
  • by
It's easy, almost tautological,  to describe music as the interplay of melody and rhythm. So saying that a band is great because of their excellent combination of melody with rhythm, at first glance, doesn't really seem to mean anything. Still, I can't help but say that I love Sleater-Kinney because of that interplay. Check it out on arguably the quintessential S-K track, "All Hands On The Bad One."

Although this particular track sounds like a fairly straightforward pop/rock setup, that's not how Sleater-Kinney began. Two of the three band members, rhythm guitar/lead singer Corin Tucker and lead guitar/backup singer Carrie Brownstein, started in the Pacific Northwest's "riot grrl" scene of the early 90's, with all the hardcore punk influences and anti-dude, pro-lesbian lyrics that implies. Sleater-Kinney's first album, self-titled and released in 1995, is primarily a backward-looking riot grrl album that only hints at the later brilliance.

Their second album, Call the Doctor, started demonstrating that brilliance in a hurry. The title track shows why: the anger, drive and rhythm of the punk and riot grrl influences are still there, but it's a little slower, with a little bit more space for the melody to join the sonic assault.

Any review of Sleater-Kinney would be incomplete without mentioning their most initially obvious trait: Corin Tucker's voice. Technically classified as a spinto soprano, her piercing screech is often the most difficult thing for first-time listeners to get past. But it's supposed to be challenging: thanks Sleater-Kinney's punk background, they're not content to make likable music, they want to get under the listener's skin. Still, the stresses of touring and further musical experimentation led to two major vocal changes in the first couple of years of the band's existence: Tucker started receiving operatic training, and Brownstein began singing more with a voice well-suited for the pop-punk direction the band was moving towards, culminating in their seminal 1997 album Dig Me Out.

On that third album, Sleater-Kinney also added their final permanent member, the stellar drummer Janet Weiss (also of Quasi and Stephen Malkmus &the Jicks). Dig Me Out is one of the classics of modern rock'n'roll, partially because of the musical changes the band was going through, but more directly because of the content. It's about a horribly painful breakup, where you can't bear to be with the other side of the breakup, but you can't stand being apart from them. It is perhaps my all-time favorite album, and its third track, "Turn It On" is certainly my all-time favorite song.

Following Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney started moving into a more pop-oriented, lush, almost decadent phase with their next two albums, The Hot Rock and All Hands On The Bad One. They could still rock out, as the title track from the latter album I posted at the start of this review shows, but they also starting doing slower, less abrasive songs. Unlike the searing cry of pain that is Dig Me Out, they're also sad and ennui-filled more than the previous raw punk. Check out "Milkshake & Honey" from All Hands On The Bad One:

The band began disintegrating around this time, taking more and more time between albums, with several songs per album about the perils and difficulties of fame. This pressure helped lead to more and more experimentation, with almost uniformly excellent results. 2002's One Beat featured Sleater-Kinney at their most musically varied, peaking in the track "Step Aside," featuring a shocking dash of Motown-inspired horns:

Things got even crazier with their final album, The Woods. "Classic rock" has always been considered the traditional enemy of punk rock, but Sleater-Kinney had always had a soft spot for fuzzed out 70's hard rock, as evidenced by their choice of covers in live shows like "Fortunate Son" or
"I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight." On The Woods, the band took off into the forest of Vermont and worked with a new producer and a new label to come up with an inspired masterpiece of hard rock. Although Led Zepplin is often called one of the main inspirations for the album, I hear The Stooges' Fun House, particularly in the regular disintegration and reformation of each song on the fly. The most-played, perhaps most intense song from the album is "Entertain":

Unsurprisingly, the band went on "indefinite hiatus" in 2006, a year after The Woods' release. They left behind an impressive legacy in their 11 years together: three classic albums, three more great albums, a beacon of hope in the dregs of late-90's rock'n'roll, hundreds of excellent live shows, devoted fans, and no embarrassing missteps either personally or professionally. This is why Sleater-Kinney is by far my favorite rock band.

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About this musical group


Formed: 1994 in Olympia, WA
Years Active: 90 's, 00's
Genre: ROCK

The anthemic Olympia, WA-based punk trio Sleater-Kinney formed from the ashes of Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, a pair of groups that rode the first wave of the riot grrrl movement. Singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein first met in 1992, when Tucker was one half of the duo Heavens to Betsy; Brownstein, a classically trained pianist, was so inspired by Tucker and other grrrl musicians like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile (not coincidentally Tucker's own influences) that she formed her own band, Excuse 17, a year later. Sleater-Kinney, which earned its name from a local freeway off-ramp, initially began as Tucker and Brownstein's side project; in late 1994, Australia-born Lora MacFarlane signed on as the group's first permanent drummer, and over the course of the following two weeks, the trio recorded its self-titled 1995 debut for Team Dresch bassist Donna Dresch's Chainsaw label. Upon its release, the album earned widespread acclaim for its visceral intensity as well as the group's provocative, politically charged lyrics, passionate vocals, and intricate melodies. With 1996's brilliant Call the Doctor, Sleater-Kinney garnered even greater media exposure and critical applause on the strength of their incisive rants against gender inequity, consumerism, and indie rock's male-dominated hierarchy. Their Kill Rock Stars label debut, Dig Me Out, recorded with new ...
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