On “Far Away,” the second song on their new album, Sleater-Kinney vocalistguitarist Corin Tucker gets The News while nursing her new son. (Marshall, now 16 months old, is one of the better reasons for the two-year gap since their last release.) “Watch the world explode in flames,” she sings from a sofa in Oregon, “and don‘t leave the house.” Except to go to the recording studio: One Beat may not be S-K’s post-911 statement from first note to last, but it‘s colored by a mixture of fear and rage whose common source is unmistakable.
I’m not suggesting that good, even great, sort-of-popular music is the silver lining to the Towers‘ cloud of ash. But it’s not an accident that this is Sleater-Kinney‘s best work since 1997’s quantum leap, Dig Me Out, their first to feature Quasi drummer Janet Weiss. The albums in between lost the plot a bit: The Hot Rock pulled the guitar-and-vocal crosstalk of Tucker and co–front woman Carrie Brownstein into needlessly fussy shapes, while All Hands on the Bad One was sonically sharp but fatally self-regarding. (“I‘m spending all my days at girlpower.com.”) Not a steep decline, but if they were aviatrixes instead of musicians, you’d be yelling, “Pull out!”
They have. Every song on One Beat feels connected, engaged, as if its creators passed a joint resolution to go for the throat this time. Brownstein and Weiss play less jaggedly than in the past, not-so-gently tweezing the post out of their punk. And though Tucker‘s car-alarm shriek has a few more settings than it had eight years ago, she’s often in full cry here. (On marginally calmer numbers, a trace of Belinda CarlisleDale Bozzio Cindy Wilson quaver creeps in.) The perform-ances have such unified-front urgency that one could almost imagine that the riff-loaded “Oh!” (hip-shaking new wave) and “Light-Rail Coyote” (a metallic tour of Portland) were written for the same reason Pete Townshend claims he wrote “My Generation” — to give the band something, anything, to tear into.
But the formal command is just a means to an end; the political baggage One Beat carries is too heavy to drop without a clunk. The rage mentioned above is directed not at the attackers, but at domestic response. “Combat Rock” blasts militarism with sarcasm as blunt as Jello Biafra‘s, and nearly as awkward: “Oh gentlemen! Start your enginesAnd we know where we get the oil from.” Not exactly subtle, but sadly necessary. The thought seems to be: If Bruce, Neil and the like aren’t going to say what has to be said, why not us?
“One Beat” could be subtitled “Rockin‘ Feminist Critique of Scientific Objectivity,” calling out Newton and Edison as if they were Bush and Cheney: “Your word for me is fusionBut is real change an illusion?” (This extends an old theme, the distrust of men of medicine — “They want to purify youanalyze, terrorize you” — that dates from their roots as riot grrrls.) Even the studious “Prisstina” achieves salvation when she’s seduced from “her Bunsen plate” by “dirty rock & roll.” Fear trumps anger exactly once: When her son gets sick on the closing “Sympathy,” Tucker reluctantly calls not only the doctor (“He only wants to give us the very worst case”) but the biggest Daddy of them all (“I‘ll beg you on bended knees for him”), her voice and Brownstein’s slide guitar tapping quite deliberately into an unexpectedly deep well of gospel-blues.
In between, there are enjoyable side trips (Brownstein‘s gravedigger cool on “Funeral Song”) and clever guest shots (Hedwig auteur Stephen Trask). But the heart of One Beat is “Step Aside,” a call-and-response stomper (“Janet, Carrie, can you hear it?”) stoked with soul-satisfying horn punches. Aretha might have taken this one slower, but no more passionately. The fact that you won’t hear it on commercial radio alongside better-funded garageisms by the Hives and the Vines says more about the rigging of our airwaves than a month of congressional hearings.
Naysayers will argue that this is the band‘s own fault for not selling their labor to a label with 100 employees. (Hell, some cried sellout when they chose one with five.) But not doing whatever it takes to speak to everyone doesn’t mean you‘re communicating with no one; to claim otherwise is to buy into a huge, hype-driven fallacy. Sleater-Kinney’s significance is that they‘ve consistently (though not infallibly) broadened both their sound and their content without denying — without even wanting to deny — their subcultural standing. What kind of music you listen to, or even perform, may not change our foreign policy, and it certainly won’t raise the dead. Concrete suggestions on what will are welcome, but until they‘re forthcoming, I’ll take this: “It‘s not the time to just keep quietSpeak up one time to the beat.”
SLEATER-KINNEY | One Beat | (Kill Rock Stars)