Olympia, Washington was a key locale for the movement (Portland, Oregon and Washington DC being arguably the two next crucial) and it was there, in 1994, that members of Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 endeavored to make a side project the main focus. Instead of calling this band Sweet Murgatroyd, the trio looked to their practice space address for inspiration, and Sleater-Kinney was officially born.
Writers more skilled/patient than myself can attempt to explain the Riot Grrl movement of the Nineties. People who were directly affected by scores of young women taking the world to task for injustice with cords and chords can try and recreate a nth of the experience. I don’t know how differently I would have turned out if my teen self developed in an environment with easy access and exposure to the world of aggrieved feminists with ungodly volume at their disposal. I don’t think about it; I found my outlet regardless.
Their debut record clocks in at just under 23 minutes. Brevity is soul.
“Don’t Think You Wanna”–It would be a nice story if Sleater-Kinney started out as a blood-boiling powershack, but that defies the conventional wisdom of artistic evolution. Not yet are they way up in the sky, but the elements that would make them legends are apparent: Corin Tucker’s defiant ululations and special dark rhythm guitar; Carrie Brownstein’s special dark vocal delivery and defiant lead guitar; lyrical task-taking and the intelligent initiation of mischief; NO BASS ALLOWED.
Missing is a superlative drum sound. By their third album Sleater-Kinney would boast one of the greatest drummers alive, but until then, here’s Lora Macfarlane.
“Don’t Think You Wanna” is like an immaculately pressed sheet lain over a ratty mattress that some brat blew snot all over the night prior. The Bikini Kill influence–that splenetic posturing–reeks from this song.
“The Day I Went Away”–The inevitable title of Lora Macfarlane’s autobiography.
SK fans discovering this album after the fact may be struck how similar the verse melody of this song is to “Good Things,” a song that appears on their second record and one of the band’s most enduring classics. If they aren’t, they will certainly perk up at the presence of what would become the hallmark of Sleater Kinney’s sound: dual vocal harmony/dueling vocal disharmony. Carrie and Corin occupy different floors of a hollowed-out halfway house.
“A Real Man”–A prime example of what Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear and pretty much every band of the Riot Grrl genre save for Bratmobile couldn’t manage–precocious command of thought and action. (And even then, love Bratmobile as I do, their best never approached Sleater-Kinney’s apex material.) Screaming and cursing is great, and I recommend it, but I didn’t notice a lot of ALL CAPS and “fuck” in The Second Sex when I read it. This is not to say that women should make their point in a predetermined, “appropriate” fashion, but that there are a wide variety of methods. When Corin says “I don’t wanna join your club/I don’t want your kind of love,” it’s a plainly stated yet fantastic refutation of sexual norms, a resolute rebellion against hetero love as polished world ideal because it gives the world more hamsters for the wheel.
What is “a real man”? Sports fan, beer drinker, truck driver? Voracious reader, organic food consumer, Prius steerer? I can’t believe–but I can–that people in this day and age use phrases like “a real man.” My best friend is a beer drinking sports fan with an Equality sticker on his Accord. So is he like “almost a real man”? Please, learn my befuddled self.
“Her Again”–Tucker’s sluggish retread tires me out, and Brownstein’s lead is a Zeppelin, and it’s almost a lost cause till the appearance of a chorus fit to crack the Earth’s crust and make Mars Clay Pies. Imagine the power these songs would secrete if they had a real drummer!
“How to Play Dead”–Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics would never be so crass again, which is both a nice thing and an unfortunate thing. “Clean up your mess/Then I’ll suck your dick.” This song brings to my mind the dilemma of power in sex; the acts of fellatio and cunnilingus can and have been construed to demean the giver as being at the mercilessness of the recipient. When I went through my own period of questioning the sexual expectations of myself and my (male) partner, I reached a detente within myself by considering both sides of the carnal coin. Did I think that the man I loved performing cunnilingus demeaned him? No, because to my mind subservience is not an automatically undesirable trait. In fact, I think that in the sensual realm, it’s as close to an immaculate state as we mere fleshed-out marionettes can ever hope to attain. Same with blowjobs. If you care enough for and about the person, and you immerse yourself in the erotic universe you two are instantaneously creating, it becomes another segment that services the whole.
The title “How to Play Dead” distressingly describes too many experiences for women. Lay back and take it. Give give give and get a little if you’re lucky. A death wish to the dumb and powerful instinct of so many!
“Be Yr Mama”–By far my favorite song here. It’s dynamite. It sticks. It lashes the whip and moves to match approaching hips. All those who would let stomp, swing, and sweat…approach. Corin’s vocals are an especially challenging listen here, but Carrie’s lead patterns are so seductively smart that resistance is shattered into billions o’ bits.
“Be Yr Mama” features some portentous shifts in mood and tone. The recipe’s not all the way there yet. Yet.
“Sold Out”–The promise of diamonds.
“Slow Song”–Delivers what it promises, which cannot always be said for Papa Johns. Caveat emptor, y’all.
“Lora’s Song”–That’s back-to-back songs that are not only underwhelming, but also end in the word “song.” I am beginning to think that in a better world, we would be making reference to “Sleater-Kinney’s debut EP.” Again, the title tells all, as the drummer steps up to the mic. Or rather, stays seated while the mic is brought to them. Given that Sleater-Kinney are the female equivalent of the Beatles, it only makes sense that this would happen at least once in their discography. Just like Ringo’s alleged best, “Lora’s Song” is like watching paint peel. It has a bit of a cult–a bit of a bite, in other words–and how much of that is revisionist sympathy and how much is people being tone deaf I cannot say for certain, as funding fell through early on for my proposed “Project To Figure Out Why the Hell Anyone Would Like the Drummers Song on the First Sleater Kinney Album.”
“The Last Song”–Memorable for the chorus, which showcases (under red light) gut-imploding screams that Carrie would never try to match for the remainder of Sleater-Kinney’s life. The last confrontation, the last damnation of the nameless useless, petulance directed at moral pestilence, can it be any ponder that their most ardent fans saw these women less as rock goddesses and more as blood relations?
So how to follow, then? A concept album about the iron woes of women since time immemorial featuring a prog-length epic about the lose-even-when-you-win scenario posited in the Pole Ax Theory? Yes, and no. Mainly no.