The most passionate music-listening friend I have still harasses me about my review of The Hot Rock, the last Sleater-Kinney album. He says I wasnt wildly enthusiastic enough. The fact that I called Sleater-Kinney the last great rock band of the century, he says, doesnt make up for my equivocation over that seething, gorgeous discs relentlessly dour tone.
So Ill start this even more equivocal review with a declaration: Sleater-Kinney is the greatest rock band in the world. And these three are more than that. Theyre the summation of everything that ever mattered about rock music. Over five albums and a series of electrifying performances, they have captured the 50s giddy, essentially adolescent, sex-driven joy riding; Dylans utter rejection of categorization and expectation; and the first punk waves liberating howl of fury. Theyve written literally dozens of mesmerizing songs, shot through with unshakable purpose and a wicked sense of humor all their own.
I love this bands unwavering commitment to the small labels and riot-grrrl community that spawned them. I love their refusal to accept anyone elses agenda -- even that of the community that spawned them. I love that theyve taken rocks most devastating tools -- sizzling guitar, wailing voice, songs you cant stop humming -- and turned them on rock itself, dismantling three generations of gender repression and intensifying shock-value hostility and creating something sweeter, more inclusive, but no less combative and joyful in its place. I love the way Sleaters members agonize, publicly, over how to hear themselves above the din theyve created without abandoning or rejecting their rabid, demanding audience. I love that vocalistguitarist Corin Tucker recognizes how lucky she is to be part of something that means so much to so many people, as she told Magnet last year, despite the obstacles such adoration can place in the path of personal peace and artistic achievement.
But I love All Hands on the Bad One even less than I did The Hot Rock. It leaves our heroes -- and they really have been heroes -- at a crossroads. And I dont know where they go from here.
Actually, I do. They go create more songs like All Hands bruising but very funny opener, Ballad of a Ladyman. Tucker hasnt let loose with her trademark quavering howl -- the one that goes off like a fire alarm and could raise the hackles on a parked car -- in some time, but she threatens to at several moments here. Drums rumble while guitars snarl out a fiercely infectious melody. Freak that I amlive in JapanLets rock with the tough girlsin this part of the world, Tucker barks, positing herself as the new centurys revamped edition of the wandering rocker, traipsing the globe in search of the good party with the loving people. The Ladyman of the title is everycreature, a new rock & roll archetype, the only person on Earth who can still scream I gotta rock! and elicit delighted cheers rather than mocking giggles. On 1996s Call the Doctor, Sleater produced their signature anthem, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. Four years later, Tucker has become something considerably more. And she sounds like she knows it.
But then everything goes broody again. Many of Sleaters new songs deal with the various ways the music industry strangles its women. The songs that dont instead focus on the rapes at Woodstock, or that horrifying televised video of a woman being liquefied by a speeding train, or abusivedestructive relationships.
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All of Sleaters righteous finger pointing is just and true and relevant. But the bands completely understandable disdain for traditional rock (and pop) culture seems to have turned, at last, to distrust of the music. Until now, Sleater has exploited every kind of catharsis rock can offer, from the fuck-it-lets-sing gleefulness of 1997s Dig Me Out to the every- a body-grab-a-flamethrower fury of Call the Doctor to the plaintive beauty of the best songs on Hot Rock.
On All Hands, though, the catharses are withheld. The guitars stay leashed, those astounding vocals sheathed. The tunes are still supple but strangely forbidding. Even Youre No Rock n Roll Fun teeters awkwardly between rant and party track.
Theres a lyric in #1 Must Have, this discs angriest cut, that goes, Ive been crawling up so long on your stairway to heaven. Its the first thing Ive ever heard Sleater-Kinney sing or say that rings false. The rock-music world is indeed a sick and suffocating place. And I can only imagine the weight of being Sleater-Kinney, of knowing that a growing legion of fans reveres all three members as role models, guitar-heroes, patron saints. But that stairway theyve been crawling up is their own, and the heaven theyve been reaching for is somewhere rock music has never been. And I, for one, still want to go there.
Sleater-Kinney appears at El Rey, Tuesday-Wednesday, June 6-7.