by Michael Goldberg
Monday, August 19, 2002
Sleater-Kinney Search For 'Hope, Goodness And Faith'
The punk trio answer their own questions on their new album, One Beat.
In the post 9/11 world that we now live in, there's an added resonance to the question Sleater-Kinney raise in "Far Away," one of two songs on the group's new album, One Beat, explicitly about the terrorist attacks.
"WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG/ WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG," singer/guitarist Corin Tucker screams. "WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG WITH YOU?"
It was one of the right questions to be asking in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks and it's a question still worth asking, nearly a year later with no solutions in sight for the problems in either the Middle East or the U.S.
Sleater-Kinney provide one possible answer to their own question in the title song, which opens the album: "Could I turn this place all upside down/ And shake you and your fossils out/ If I'm to run the future/ You've got to let the old world go."
With a Republican president and a cabinet of mostly former CEOs all looking to turn the clock back to the Reagan years (or perhaps a right-wing reinvention of the '50s), one expects no less from a punk band. It's also what you would hope to hear from smart, idealistic young men or women (mid-'20s). You know, out with the old, in with the new. Or something like that.
Punk has never cared about history or tradition. It's not intimidated by what came before. How else, in the shadow of to name just a few Elvis and Dylan, Iggy and The Clash and The Ramones, could anyone have the audacity to think that they could make some new rock that would matter? And yet punk does, again and again and again. The three members of Sleater-Kinney had the nerve to think the music they first created for themselves and their friends in Olympia, Wash. in 1994 was of value now they're the best rock band in the world, having recorded six of rock's best albums. And when they release new music, fans around the world listen up.
One Beat is, of course, an album of music, of songs, not a political manifesto. It's "just" a record, someone could say. Just a record? If you believe, as I do, that art can change the world, then music such as this is anything but slight.
While two songs on One Beat are explicitly political, the entire album feels weighted down by what we now know and fear. "I think the larger theme of the record that has to do specifically with 9/11 and its political aftermath, but also in our personal lives is dealing with what you do, where do you find hope or goodness or faith, after a time of complete despair, in a time of darkness," singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein said recently in an interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel that appeared on lesbiannation.com. "We always try to write from a really honest place, and that's where we were at."
In the right hands, politics and rock go together seamlessly. One can easily argue that even the earliest rock 'n' roll, though it didn't make a statement through its lyrics, was a reaction to both the politics and middle-of-the-road culture of the day. Later, of course, things became more literal, as solo artists and bands including The Beatles, Dylan and the Rolling Stones made political and social statements through song. Later still, this tradition (though they likely didn't think of it that way) was carried on by late-'70s/early-'80s punks, including the Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Gang of Four and there have been plenty more.
But it's not the politics that will keep you coming back to One Beat. It's the sound. The sound of the music played by Tucker, Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, and the often otherworldly vocals of Tucker and Brownstein. It's an angular, tough sound with lots of sharp edges, like the feel of cold corrugated metal. It's an apocalyptic sound, the sound of change, the sound of marching feet. And in the "uh oh!"s and hiccups of Tucker and Brownstein one hears something almost alien, as if they were members of an evolved species of human.
After several months of listening to the album, what strikes me as the most perfect song here is "Oh!" It begins with what now can be described as a trademark wiry Sleater-Kinney guitar intro, set against Weiss' huge beat. The song is mostly sung by Brownstein, whose elastic voice sounds truly free and weirder (that's a compliment) than ever. "Oh!" is a love song, but it's very playful. At times the vocals have the sound of lovers speaking to each other in a language only they understand. "The way I feel when you call my name," Brownstein sings, "Makes me go crazy to sane/ The way I feel when you're close to me/ Finally not drifting out to sea."
Then there's the chorus. Tucker sings "Nobody lingers like [pause] your hands on [pause] my heart" as if her voice were a roller coaster, riding up from its normal mid-range to a freaky falsetto. "Nobody figures like...," Tucker continues, and then taking a wild ride, "you figured [pause] me out."
Finally, there's an odd bridge in which the two trade lines over the slightly ominous guitar riffs of the intro. It'll give you a total rush when you hear it. It sounds like Tucker sings (it's hard to make out the words), "It's all in my hot pocket." Then Brownstein adopts a deep, dramatic voice as she rushes these words: "I don't mind I don't mind I don't mind." Tucker replies, "I got it, hot rocket!" And Brownstein ends with "Come a little closer don't let go soon."
And there, in "Oh!," is the answer to the question raised in "Far Away." We aren't "one," even those of us in the closest of love relationships. Yet it is possible to "get along." If we, as humans, can somehow bridge those distances that come between us, there is hope. These words, one lover speaking to another, can also apply to one community speaking to another. Or one country making peace with another. "Makes me go crazy to sane/ The way I feel when you're close to me/ Finally not drifting out to sea."