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 wasn’t wildly enthusiastic enough. The fact that I called Sleater-Kinney the last great rock band of the century, he says, doesn‘t make up for my equivocation over that seething, gorgeous disc’s relentlessly dour tone.
So I‘ll 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. They’re 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; Dylan‘s utter rejection of categorization and expectation; and the first punk wave’s liberating howl of fury. They‘ve written literally dozens of mesmerizing songs, shot through with unshakable purpose and a wicked sense of humor all their own.
I love this band’s unwavering commitment to the small labels and riot-grrrl community that spawned them. I love their refusal to accept anyone else‘s agenda — even that of the community that spawned them. I love that they’ve taken rock‘s most devastating tools — sizzling guitar, wailing voice, songs you can’t 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 Sleater‘s members agonize, publicly, over how to hear themselves above the din they’ve 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 don‘t 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 hasn‘t 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 JapanLet’s rock with the tough girlsin this part of the world,” Tucker barks, positing herself as the new century‘s 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 1996’s 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 Sleater‘s new songs deal with the various ways the music industry strangles its women. The songs that don’t instead focus on the rapes at Woodstock, or that horrifying televised video of a woman being liquefied by a speeding train, or abusivedestructive relationships.
All of Sleater‘s righteous finger pointing is just and true and relevant. But the band’s 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-let‘s-sing gleefulness of 1997’s 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 “You‘re No Rock ’n‘ Roll Fun” teeters awkwardly between rant and party track.
There’s a lyric in “#1 Must Have,” this disc‘s angriest cut, that goes, “I’ve been crawling up so long on your stairway to heaven.” It‘s the first thing I’ve 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 they‘ve been crawling up is their own, and the heaven they’ve 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.