By Mabel Suen
By Kris Wernowsky
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By Allison Babka
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Since forming in 1994, the Olympia, Wash.-based trio Sleater-Kinney has released five albums, making rock critics (most notably the venerable genius/loon Greil Marcus) salivate, gush and generally wax rhapsodic. Media slobber aside, you know a band has some cultural currency when Courtney Love bothers to trash them, even when they don't have a fraction of her market share or a single lousy Versace. Some things in this world are guaranteed: The geeky pundits will keep drooling over bands nobody's heard of, Courtney will snipe and cavil, and the kids, oblivious, will continue buying their 'N Sync albums.
Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney just keeps making great records year after year. Instead of relying on the swoon-inducing formula that made them famous in certain indie-rock circles -- the trademark intertwining double guitar leads, the contrapuntal vocal tradeoffs, the escalating tension erupting into feverish epiphany -- singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss have bravely reinvented themselves with each album, moving into poppier terrain without abandoning the aggressive edge of their self-titled Chainsaw debut. After Call the Doctor, the first solid evidence of the band's creative potential, Sleater-Kinney switched to the Kill Rock Stars label and replaced drummer Lora Macfarlane with Weiss (also in Quasi), whose innovative rhythms galvanized the band's evolving style. Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock followed in 1997 and 1999, respectively, revealing the band's growing interest in more complex melodies and instrumental textures.
Sleater-Kinney's latest CD, All Hands on the Bad One, pushes this experiment to the next level, combining the confrontational but cerebral punk rock of their earlier records with folky three-part harmonies, poppy hand claps and even the occasional organ (courtesy of Tucker's Cadallaca bandmate Sarah Dougher) and Mellotron (played by Weiss' Quasi partner, Sam Coomes). They sound like themselves, only more so -- wholesome and dangerous, bubblegum catchy and heart-attack serious. According to Brownstein, who spoke with the RFT by phone from her home in Olympia, the new record was a conscious attempt to challenge themselves stylistically: "We really did want to work with our vocals on this record. When I wrote the song 'All Hands on the Bad One,' that was really the impetus for all three of us singing. I wrote the music, and I was singing on the verses. For the chorus, I asked Corin to come up with something to sing, something that Janet and I could sing with her. She started to sing, 'All hands on the bad one, we would be no better,' and then we all were singing. It was really overwhelming. It seemed to really cement the connection that we already had but expand on it, because there's a different kind of connection and dynamic created with the vocals. We really wanted to incorporate that in the other songs."
Although Weiss has only recently begun to contribute harmonies, the vocal interplay between Tucker and Brownstein has always been an essential ingredient of Sleater-Kinney's sound. All the greatest rock singers have one thing in common: They could talk you into anything -- make you cheat on your boyfriend, drop out of high school, worship the devil. Tucker is definitely in that league: She could be the demonic offspring of Belinda Carlisle and Robert Plant, a ferocious, ululating cosmic force that grabs you by the throat and shakes you senseless. It swallows you up, that extravagant, reckless vibrato, and when you see her perform live, electrified with this terrifying energy, you understand exactly what she means when she sings, "I'm your monster, I'm not like you." When she sings, she's bigger than us, bigger than herself, a Frankenstein's monster, a tsunami.
To allow that Brownstein's voice is more ordinary than Tucker's is no insult; almost anyone's is by comparison. Where Tucker throttles, Brownstein insinuates. It's the clash between Brownstein's sly and sweet, slightly nasal Everygirl voice and Tucker's wild keening that distinguishes Sleater-Kinney from the legions of the almost-great, that transforms each song into metacommentary, a dramatic dialogue. Typically, one woman will sing a few bars, then the other will jump in with another vocal line -- sometimes they're singing different parts at the same time, sometimes they're trading off. Like their interlocking guitars (Tucker and Brownstein alternate playing lead and rhythm; there is no bass player), their voices weave through each other, creating a dense and intricate melodic pattern. With All Hands, they still exploit this technique, but they're also combining forces at times, constructing harmonies both conventional and surprising: one part girl-group, one part art-punk. When asked about the evolution of their vocal arrangements, Brownstein remarks that their signature style was "really conversational, with a conscious/subconscious kind of feeling to it. There's some of that on this record, but I think we wanted more cohesion. We had a renewed sense of enjoyment about playing music together and playing music in general. For us, that was best captured in a unified front, all of us together, not equivocating."
A similar collectivism informs their songwriting -- both in process (all their compositions are collaborations, all credited to Sleater-Kinney) and in subject matter. Throughout their career, they've written a lot of songs about being Sleater-Kinney, a band of female rock musicians: "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," "Words and Guitar," "Little Babies," "Ballad of a Ladyman," "#1 Must Have," to name a few.