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A Rookie’s Guide to Sleater-Kinney: the Best Rock Band on the Planet

As the no-shits-given trio return, we dissect seven of their most unerring songs.

by Jazz Monroe
Jan 6 2015, 2:45pm

When Sleater-Kinney announced their ten-years-coming reunion this past October, the legendary trio instantly became the best rock band on the planet. In a world where Royal Blood and Arctic Monkeys feel sufficiently endowed to erect totems to their brand of "real music," S-K are a band who genuinely dominate; breaking down walls, rules and egos with nimble poise and savage fury. In Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein's universe of shrapnel words and pinballing riffs, "real music" is real stupid and rock history is just his rock story.

Sleater-Kinney formed in Olympia, Washington in 1994, a hub for young feminists, and the mainstream quickly co-opted them into its distorted idea of riot grrrl. But if that movement had been about righteous energy ricocheting against tight and confined borders, S-K detonated those rock music limitations, fanning the bonfire of complexity and brilliance that riot grrrl had ignited, with their trademarks of coiled song structures, loopy riffs, and volleying vocals.

Arriving in the immediate aftermath of Kurt Cobain's suicide, Sleater-Kinney took the shaggy dude's statement that "women are the only future in rock and roll" and totally smashed it, rewriting not just rock and roll's future but its dude-dominated past. Hearing S-K songs like "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," yesterday's rock and punk icons seemed suddenly one-dimensional, like press composites of dated teen dreams. History, particularly rock's, was no longer a high catalogue of rigid archetypes; instead it was seen as a man-made fiction, something not to preserve but to pervert. Between their wild tunes, life-making lyrics and killing-it stage presence, S-K were so gleefully iconoclastic they made an entire genre look like... silly little boys, basically.

Often Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker (who were dating until 1997's Dig Me Out) would sing together, but they'd never duet, because while their capacity to show massive vulnerability strengthened them, the pair were never vulnerable at the same time. Instead, they quarrelled, ambushed and beat each other into a submission that never came, and the effect was electric.

In a sane and just world Sleater-Kinney would be bigger than atheism. But since the rock canon is a place of squirting cock graffiti and crushed male pride it seems there's a bunch of flawed but non-awful humans yet to tap in. So here's our honest and necessary but totally non-comprehensive introduction to Sleater-Kinney to help you catch up. Oh, and we've done it in reverse-chronological order, because we were feeling fucking anarchic.

"Jumpers" from The Woods

The trio spent their career making guitars thrash and convulse as if worming out of power structures. But with The Woods, impeccably produced by Dave Fridmann (now famed for making everybody sound like the Flaming Lips, including the Flaming Lips), they opened a dam of sludgy groans and Led Zep fire bursts. Key to this were tunes like the dark ballad "Steep Air" and the Elliott (via Patti) Smith number "Modern Girl"—possibly the only thing in their catalogue you'd describe as a "number." And bridging that gap is "Jumpers," a song about Golden Gate Bridge suicides that starts out like Is This It-era Strokes, then makes you realize how much better Is This It would've been if the Strokes weren't making it. Tense guitar jabs set the scene before, two minutes in, something cracks and in comes a ridiculous riff that sounds like the sky bursting apart and raining down bits of God, hot saliva and Skittles. It's great.

"One Beat" from One Beat

One Beat was one of the first indie-rock LPs to address 9/11, with tracks like "Combat Rock" channelling Throwing Muses to throw shade at the Bush government's simplistic, war-mongering self-publicity. But it's the opening track that punches hardest, a crosswind of antsy riffs that whips Corin's yelps into a violent storm. The sexy guitar twang that arrives a micro-beat off-schedule at 2.33 is the stuff obsessions are made of.

"You're No Rock N' Roll Fun" from All Hands on the Bad One

Like its follow-up, All Hands on the Bad One came out at a loaded time for the counterculture. Limp Bizkit's tragic Woodstock 99 set had soundtracked the gang rape of a crowd surfing woman, which S-K addressed on "#1 Must Have." But it's the preceding track, "You're No Rock N' Roll Fun," that pinpoints the everyday manifestation of boy's club culture, dealing a sweet blow to the stiffs who "won't hang out with the girl band." Over guitars that flitter like sycamore seeds, the track twists Wire and Pavement into an elegantly playful anthem that makes a big point as if it were a joke.

"Burn, Don't Freeze" from The Hot Rock

If fourth LP The Hot Rock was a bit of a slow-burner, it rewarded the investment with tunes like the near-perfect title track. Even closer to perfect is "Burn, Don't Freeze," a track whose melancholic, balletic riffs run under frantic wails like a taunting stream. But there's also a splash of tenderness, something predecessors and contemporaries like Fugazi and Les Savy Fav didn't always have down, and that's part of the reason S-K are better than either.

"One More Hour" from Dig Me Out

It's apt that one of the best breakup tunes ever was created by the couple that were breaking up in it. After the relationship became public knowledge via an unsolicited Spin article, its bitter downfall took back control of the narrative with iconic fretwork and eerily hoarse and drained vocals. The song taps into that high plane of indie rock that's both heart-breaking and euphoric, leaving no doubt that each second of the song means everything in the world to the humans making it. Like most of S-K's best music, listening to "One More Hour" is like watching a brutal car crash with of human emotions, their feelings and heartstrings crimpled grossly by the roadside.

"I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" from Call the Doctor

A punk masterpiece of jerky rhythms and whiplash backing vocals, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" takes a sledgehammer to the rock history canon and smashes it like a piñata. In true Sleater style, they take possession of the myths and riffs carved into rock since time immemorial, while acknowledging the inevitable influence of the tradition. "I'm fine," Corin concludes as the racket recedes, "'cause it's all mine."

"How to Play Dead" from Sleater-Kinney

If S-K's debut doesn't get all the chin-stroking plaudits for innovation, no one would deny their knack for making a point. It's best expressed on "How to Play Dead," a diatribe that manages to be brutal, sad, on-point and sneering all at once. What starts as a righteous rant against a dude who can't handle his blow-job high ("I'm gonna choke can't feel a thing / You say 'go deeper' you like it when I scream / And then you tell me I'm so good") gains moral and rhetorical pace, escalating into killer barbs like "I won't suck your big ego and then swallow all my pride / I'm just spitting out the memory and stains you left inside of me." And that last verse could be a feminist kiss-off to the rock patrimony they were about to destroy: "I'll show you how it feels to be dead / How it feels to be held still / How I wish you were dead."

Jazz Monroe is on Twitter.

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