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Why We Need Sleater-Kinney Now More Than Ever

No group has come close to replicating Sleater-Kinney's sound in the last decade.
October 21, 2014, 2:30pm

"It almost seems like there's this backlash against any kind of forward thinking," Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist Corin Tucker once told an interviewer. "Looking at the sexism in rock, people are doing it so deliberately, and men are grasping for any power they can in a really ugly way." The date on that quote? 2000—although it's understandable if this was mistaken for a more recent discussion about the state of rock music. Nearly 15 years later, sexism is still a vital (and problematic) issue—whether it's women musicians being underrepresented at festivals or not taken seriously as musicians to guys rushing the stage and kissing ladies against their will and violent online attacks.

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Sleater-Kinney—Tucker, vocalist/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer/vocalist Janet Weiss– confronted all those issues head on, without fear and without a filter. This makes it all the more welcome that the band is returning from its indefinite hiatus in a big way: a new album, No Cities To Love, on January 20; a slew of tour dates; and a tightly coiled, corrosive new song, "Bury Our Friends." It's also perfect timing for Start Together, a box set containing the band's seven studio albums remastered from their original analog tapes that arrives in stores this week.

The care and precision given to restoring each record is evident. The buffed-up version of 2002's One Beat amps up the LP's urgency—from Weiss' drums on the title track to how the wobbly synthesizers and precise chorus of "Prisstina" pop out of the speakers—while the grimy distortion and howling noise splattered on band's classic rock-tinted final record, 2005's The Woods, is even dirtier and more primal than before. For anyone who found the latter record too much of a departure when it was released a decade ago, the remastered version teases out new nuances and layers that makes it feel fresh; Brownstein's guitar playing especially sounds like a cathartic revelation.

The turbulence of Sleater-Kinney's raw self-titled 1995 debut also bubbles to the surface with newfound clarity—from the way Tucker taunts a lover who wants a caretaker on "Be Yr Mama" to the blind banshee rage of the ex-purging "The Last Song": "I don't owe you anything/I'm not part of you/You can't take away everything/I'm not part of you." The Sonic Youth-isms of 1996's Call The Doctor are clipped and strident, as are the thorny punk riffs and razor-sharp vocal enunciation of 1997 Dig Me Out; 1999's indie-emo-inspired The Hot Rock boasts more resonant, nuanced guitar textures and smoothed-over melodies. Calling these records feminist-punk statements—while technically true—limits their influence; these albums built on what riot grrrl started and introduced cultural nuance that spoke to the more universal experience of being a woman and having to battle misconceptions and marginalization.

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But the members of Sleater-Kinney aren't and never have been strident caricatures; in fact, they paired their outrage with inspiring moments of self-empowerment. For starters, there's the confidence boost "Burn, Don't Freeze" ("You're the truest light I've known/But someday I'll learn I don't need your fuel to burn"), the rock 'n' roll mash note "Words and Guitar" and "Taking Me Home," which asserts that a woman isn't a dude's possession. "How To Play Dead" turns the tables and wishes death upon a guy who was sexually aggressive ("I won't suck your big ego and swallow all my pride/I'm spitting out your memory and stains you left inside of me"), while other songs lash out at the ugliness of fame and admit to feeling uncomfortable in one's skin. There's even a line in "End Of You" that sums up the current wave of violent attacks toward feminist writers, gamers and speakers: "There's no bigger spotlight/Than shown on the ones brave enough to live." And while the band's songs certainly came from a place of patriarchal frustration, their point of view wasn't necessarily tied to the gender binary; in fact, anyone feeling diminished could relate to this music and roar back.

More than anything, the reissues expose how lyrically prescient Sleater-Kinney's catalog is. 2000's All Hands On The Bad One—a grab bag of distressed punk, trembling indie-pop and sing-songy power-pop—particularly speaks about today's pressing issues. The harrowing "Was It A Lie?" references online voyeurism as it relates to violence ("Looped her death on the internet/And a woman's life got cheaper that day"); eating disorders are obliquely referenced in "Youth Decay"; and "#1 Must Have" laments how riot grrrl's core tenets got co-opted by the media ("They took our ideas to their marketing stars/And now I'm spending all my days at girlpower.com/Trying to buy back a little piece of me"), even as unsafe environments for women proliferate ("Will there always be concerts where women are raped?"). This relevance is a double-edged sword: Although it speaks to the timeless quality of the band's songwriting, it's rather disconcerting that misogyny, exploitation of and violence against women are still such ongoing concerns in 2014.

That society, culture and politics are in many ways unequal to women—and, so it seems, getting more imbalanced by the day—makes Sleater-Kinney's return that much more of a relief. Even in subtle ways, the band raised awareness of discrimination, and encouraged taking action and speaking out to combat injustice. Above all, they were a galvanizing musical and ideological force—a rare combination. Perhaps that's why no group has come close to replicating Sleater-Kinney's sound in the last decade, even if there are sonic echoes of their influence in bands such as White Lung, Screaming Females and War On Women.

Still, the spirit of Sleater-Kinney's forthrightness lives on via outspoken feminists such as Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves, Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry and Joanna Gruesome’s Alanna McArdle, and in any interviews where acts decry misogyny in rock music. Even the endless debates about feminism likely wouldn't have happened without Sleater-Kinney paving the way first. There's no better time for the band to unveil their second act; in fact, they already have a re-introduction tune in 2000's "Male Model": "It's time for a new rock 'n' roll age/History will have to find a different face/And if you're ready for me/I just might be what you're looking for."

Annie Zaleski is a riot grrrl forever and all-around badass. She's on Twitter - @anniezaleski.