While I don’t remember the first time I ever heard Sleater-Kinney, I definitely remember the general circumstances. I was definitely in grad school, it was definitely the year of our lord 2002, and was definitely at the hands of my good friend Jeff Jarosch*. This was during their early critical-darling peak and I recall having a discussion with another friend (who I won’t name), who said he wasn’t all that interested *because* they were critical darlings. This was frustrating for me because I’m almost never a bandwagon-jumper. But I definitely got on the SK bandwagon because they deserved it.
*Jeff is one of those friends with whom I lost touch because he’s moved around a little, is not into social media and very busy being a lawyer and a father of three. Not because we lost interest in each other or because we had a falling out or whatever. I miss him a lot even though all that separates us is laziness and a sharp divergence in lifestyle.
Immediately, I found Sleater-Kinney hard to peg. Coming off the 90s, when if you were in a band without men and had a bit of a punk edge, you were categorized as Riot Grrrl, which for better or worse is a label that comes with a lot of baggage. And their origins would put them squarely in that category, but Sleater-Kinney came at the tail end of the movement, which set them apart. They sounded fundamentally different. Their aesthetic wasn’t particularly low-fi and despite being a three-piece their sound is rich, musically. Of course to me, their signature is their diminutive front-woman’s gigantic voice. Unlike other women vocalists whom I admire, I don’t wish I could sing like Corin Tucker. I think this is because nobody sings like Corin Tucker, her voice is almost absurd, it’s so big. I love it, though. The only comparable standout voice in rock music I can immediately think of is Glenn Danzig, which is hideously insulting to Corin Tucker, but all I mean is that it’s not mistaken for anyone else’s*.
*Unless, in the case of Danzig, it’s an impression.
Jeff urged me to check out Dig Me Out first and it was indeed a good initial foray. I still love that album. That same year, they released One Beat, which is their 9/11 album. It’s excellent, but I think suffers from having been too topical*. Despite this obvious shortcoming, One Beat is still one of my favorites to put on and reminds me so much of That Time. Just thinking about it makes me think of driving on High Street south of campus towards downtown. Over the years, I collected the remainder of their back catalog and gradually, I came around to Call the Doctor, by far and away, Sleater-Kinney’s biggest triumph.
*It was too topical in its time and it certainly seems a bit dated now. It’s like they didn’t wait long enough and were still too upset about 9/11 when they wrote it. This is a great lesson for all creatives. It’s really, really hard to write about contemporary events without suffering for it. I know this--I do--but I still sometimes try to convince Pete to write more obtusely about Trump or staying inside for a year and to his credit, he resists every time. Regardless, Cancelled and Relaunch really are our Trump albums, even if his name is never mentioned.
Call the Doctor was Sleater-Kinney’s second studio album, released in 1996 and holy moly is it a great one. Notably, it includes not only “Good Things,” but also close runners-up for my favorite SK song. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” might be their best-known track from their early albums and it might even be my favorite but I guess I didn’t want to say it was. As the title implies, it’s a teen punk-rocker’s homage to her heroes. Corin Tucker belts out the song title in the first and third chorus, changing it up in the second to “I wanna be your Thurston Moore.” Oh, I love it, it’s so forthright in its geekiness. The title track is what I assumed up until a few minutes ago a song about abortion. The lines “your life is good for one thing, you're messing with what's sacred. They want to simplify your needs and likes to sterilize you” is what sent me in that direction, but in reading others’ thoughts on the matter, I think it’s generally about dealing with established medical norms by a medical establishment that’s fundamentally sexist, homophobic, and ableist. It’s personal, specific, and pissy and I love it very much.
“Good Things” is probably a weird pick, not likely anyone else’s favorite Sleater-Kinney song. It’s weird for me, too. When I talk about my favorite songs, I usually mention lyrics, themes, and vocal performance, but “Good Things” is exceptional in that I just really love the melody and song structure. It’s a breakup song in kind of the same spirit as “Again” by Janet Jackson, #31 on this list, where it’s from the perspective of someone looking back on a past relationship, which is whatever. It’s a fine theme, but not one that’s super personal to me. The musicianship is pretty classic SK, mid-tempo with fairly complex rhythm guitar work, particularly for a punk song. But the melody: it’s one of those that sounds so natively song-like. Do you even know what I mean? The kind of song that’s so well-written, you feel like you’ve heard it before? “Good Things” is like that. I also love the bridge, which wraps the whole beautiful thing up with “this time it will be alright, this time it will be ok,” but you can kind of tell it won’t be. It’s emo, sad-sacky, and I love it.
I’ve seen Sleater-Kinney live twice. Once in February of 2003 at Little Brother’s (RIP) in Columbus. The Black Keys opened, which I mention not because I like the Black Keys at all, but because Sleater-Kinney is uniquely talented at selecting opening acts. Anyway, that show was one of the best ones I’ve ever seen. They were on the top of their goddamned game. They were energetic, tight as hell, and suuuuuper sexy. Then--coming off a lengthy hiatus--I had the opportunity in 2015 at the 9:30 Club and I was really disappointed. Lizzo opened this one and definitely stole the show. You could probably fit eight Little Brotherses inside the 9:30 Club and the lack of intimacy really hurt the show. I also am not sure Corin Tucker’s voice has all the oomph it used to, which is totally understandable but when the oomph is the actual thing, that’s a problem. As I was grumpily watching a show in front of a crowd 10 times the size of one of the best live sets I’d ever seen, I looked around me and saw all these young women and femmes flipping out at finally getting to see Sleater-Kinney and realized I was being old and grumpy. I’m glad they hold the same power for kids as they have for me.
Sleater-Kinney is still technically together but I feel like they permanently broke up a long time ago. During their aforementioned hiatus, Carrie Brownstein became almost legit-famous, starring in an actual TV show, of which I am not a fan. Because of the popularity of said TV show, she ended up in an American Express commercial, which--I’m not usually like this--but come on. A credit card commercial? Jesus. I also didn’t care for her memoir. She was forthright and detailed and it’s not like there wasn’t a reason she shared the story, but she ended it by describing coming home to a pet cat that was killed by her pet dog. Fucking nightmare fuel. It’s pretty unfair of me to feel soured on the band because of this, but I can’t help it. That’s how brutal the story was. There was no warning. I’m also a bit upset with them for continuing on after drummer Janet Weiss left the group last year. She was as much part of Sleater Kinney as any of them and it just seems in bad taste. I legitimately haven’t liked an album they’ve put out since One Beat. I hated the Woods, released in 2005, their Iraq War album. I guess being too topical is an issue for them. It was also a departure for them stylistically, and not in a way that appealed to me. It seemed almost--proggy? No Cities to Love (2015) was better, but still underwhelming. I never picked up their 2019 release, produced by St. Vincent, which just seemed so left-field, I think of it as Nu Sleater-Kinney and resoundingly rejected it when it came out, never having given it a chance. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, I happened to hear a Nu Sleater-Kinney song on Spotify and it sounded pretty good for all the opposite reasons I was underwhelmed by No Cities to Love. Like a departure, but a welcome one so that it doesn’t just sound like a weak version of Dig Me Out. So idk feel free to @ me about that and tell me I’m just being grumpy. I may just give them another chance.