Saturday, August 24, 2002


By Wayne Robins

One Beat
(Kill Rock Stars)

The name Sleater-Kinney could represent any kind of institution: an investment bank, a specialty hospital (think Sloan-Kettering), a PBS news program, one that would almost certainly be more lively, if not always as stolidly informative, as what used to be known as the McNeill-Lehrer Report.

But what they've represented to me the last ten days, as I wrestle with their new album, "One Beat," on the Kill Rock Stars label, is severe writers block.

It seems an absurdity: Writer's block on my own blog? It's not like there's a six-figure advance on the line and I'm six-months past deadline. There isn't even six cents on the line. There's no editor saying, "Waynester, 500 words on Sleater-Kinney by Tuesday or you’ll be covering Evelyn "Champagne" King comeback tours at Westbury Music Fair." The pressure is entirely self-imposed. And so is the desire to write.

Perhaps a visit to the Sleater-Kinney Psychoanalytic Institute is required. "Ven did you first start haffing this divviculty expressing your feeee-lings about this band, Herr Robins," asks Dr. Freudenadler. As I ponder this on the doctor's couch, I think about Sleater-Kinney consisting of three women: Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, singers and guitarists, and Janet Weiss, who sings and drums. They've been recording as Sleater-Kinney for seven years, and "One Beat" is their sixth album. I would guess that all are in their mid to late 20s or early 30s. I am old enough to be any of their fathers. I am, in fact, the father of three daughters, one of whom is in her early 20s and angry enough at me that I imagine her thoughts sounding like Corin Tucker's unsteady yet devastating primal scream. Tucker, in fact, had a baby during the band's hiatus two years ago, so I am old enough to be her child's grandfather. Corin’s boy, now about two, if I’m counting right, is named Marshall Tucker Bangs.

Okay, Gramps: This is just a rock and roll record, and you've written about thousands of them over the last 32 years, since you were 19 years old. Writer's block was never an issue, not for the last 25 years anyway: Daily newspaper deadlines tend to punch your clock. You just get it done.

Am I too old for Sleater-Kinney? Not any more than I was for, say, AC/DC when I was in my 30s, and getting my kicks thinking about how I was probably the only commuter on the Long Island Railroad getting a delirious rush from blasting "For Those About to Rock, We Salute You" on my headphones. And I didn’t really like AC/DC: Just that record.

I did arrive late at the Sleater-Kinney party. They were already established alt-rock stars when "All Hands On the Bad One" came out two years ago. Greil Marcus, who is much (well, a few years) older than I am, has been enhtusiastic about Corin Tucker for ten years, since she led a band called Heavens to Betsy. Michael Goldberg (about my age, I guess) interviewed S-K in the the final edition of Addicted to Noise the excellent online rock mag he stewarded from its 1994 start-up, and compared the message of "All Hands" in potency to Nirvana's "Nevermind," Husker Du's "Zen Arcade" and anything by the Clash. I didn't know how much, or how little much, to agree or disagree, since "All Hands" was the first Sleater-Kinney music I'd heard at all. (And yes, I went out and bought my own copy). Even Time magazine named it album of the year, though I confess I don't have any idea how to decode Time Magazine. Except for the indomitable art critic Robert Hughes, I give much less credence to their critics than I do to AOL-Time Warner's sometimes reliable but increasingly juvenile Entertainment Weekly. Now it is said that Greil Marcus wrote the Time article (I've only seen his earlier piece about the band on the Time/CNN web site, so now I'm really confused).

I've been listening to "One Beat" for free from the Internet for a few weeks thanks to Kill Rock Stars' online listening party, which has been a 24/7 continuous stream of the new record. (The Web site also has the full lyrics, so you can find out which track your listening to and also what Corin, primarily, is saying.

Though the occasional guest artist appears (including, in this case, Stephen Trask, creator and composer of "Hedwig and the Angry Itch" and the first male vocal to be heard on an S-K album), this is still primeval three-piece punk rock. Tucker's no diva...she's not even any Deborah Harry. Scream for scream, she can surely match her infant in intensity. Strenuous as her activity is, she sells the songs with the true believer passion of a quavering Joan Jett. Tucker and fellow guitarist Carrie Brownstein leads the instrumental attack with controlled nastiness, while Janet Weiss kicks and hits with foot and sticks with discipline and confidence.

Every interview I've read show Corin, Carrie and Janet to be enormously intelligent, self-confident but not arrogant, passionately dedicated to both living life expressing themselves through art. (They live far from the music industry sausage machine, in Portland, Ore., though they spend time in Seattle, and in Olympia, Wa. where Kill Rock Stars is based). And it's that grounded, human scale approach to rock and roll that makes their music so appealing.

It takes awhile for the distinctive images to emerge from the blur of the first few listens. "Far Away" is their 9/11 song, with Corin responding with a mother's instincts, a rebel's wrath, a now-universal American story of private stress and shock played out against the TV images of falling buildings, filled with thousands of people disintegrating before our eyes. "Light-Rail Coyote" pays another kind of tribute, to the suburban teens who escape to find hope and sustenance in the rock clubs of Portland's boho district. "Oh," is a love song that rocks, the title expressing the surprise of a first kiss that can't miss.

"Sympathy" shows a musical stretch, a country blues that mocks Mick and the Stones' with some of their own "whoo-hoo's" that sneer at the devil. (Sleater-Kinney aren't even make-believe nihilists: they're positivists). "Combat Rock" takes its title from the Clash, but it's a different song about a different time and place. The Clash attacked militant Thatcherism; Sleater-Kinney confronts unilateral Bushism and constitution-shredding Ashcroftism, the stifling of free ideas in the land of the supposedly free.

First, there is the sigh, "Oh god, I love my dirty Uncle Sam," resigned and insulted that a loyalty oath appears to be the de facto requirement for discussing alternatives to rocking Saddam's Casbah. Sleater-Kinney demands of its fans, its fellow artists, and its country: "Where is the questioning, where is the protest song? Since when is skepticism un-American? Dissent's not treason but they talk like it's the same." Jabbing away at the hypocrisy of Rumsfield-Cheney Nation, S-K adds this warning: "If we let them lead us blindly/The past comes future once again."
It's not enough for Sleater-Kinney to rag and rage: That's where they leave the conformity and limitations of punk and rock behind. They strive to educate, illuminate, and entertain, the way all good art should. Which is, I guess, why I got as much pleasure blasting S-K on my CD Walkman on my express bus commute the other day as I did AC/DC all those years ago. Maybe not as loud, because I want to be able to hear what my daughters have to say as the years go on. And as for those daughters, Dr. Freudenadler, if they turn out like I imagine Corin, Carrie and Janet to be, I will be very proud of them all.
(c) 2002 Wayne Robins , all rights reserved. Comments?

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