Sleater-Kinney - One Beat

A couple of weeks after I graduated college, as a sort of birthday present to myself, I drove down to Washington, D.C. to see a couple of my favorite bands to play a show together at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, an old and ornate venue in the middle of the city. Belle And Sebastian, still a vaguely mysterious and culty concern, were headlining, but I was at least as interested in seeing their openers. Within seconds of them stepping onstage, though, it was pretty obvious that Constitution Hall was the wrong venue for Sleater-Kinney: Bare-bones setup at the middle of a gigantic stage, playing to an audience obviously there to dance horribly to the cuddlier headliner. (Seriously, Belle And Sebastian fans cannot dance.) I’d already seen them play a couple of packed, sweaty shows at the Black Cat, and they were transcendent there, but this building was a different beast entirely. So here’s how they responded. Without saying a word, they stepped to center-stage and belted out a swelling, ferocious song that I’d never heard before. I remember sitting there, thinking to myself, “Is this a cover? Or something from that first album that I still haven’t heard? Fuck, I should buy that first album.” But then they played another one that I didn’t recognize, and it was even better. And then another. And another. Pretty soon, I stopped worrying about where I could find these songs, or whether they’d play “Little Babies,” and just let the brain-melt set in. When they finished their last one, Corin Tucker tossed her hair back and spoke to the audience for the first time: “Thanks. We’re Sleater-Kinney, and that was our new album.” After that, everything Belle And Sebastian did felt entirely anticlimactic. The album in question, One Beat, wouldn’t come out for another two or three months. It’s now my favorite album that anyone has released this century.

One Beat is one of those albums that I get all religious and fervent about; I can remember wanting to fight every rock critic who didn’t have it at the top of a 2002 best-of list. (“The Streets? Fuck outta here with that.”) We’re not getting another album like it, from anyone, ever. The circumstances that went into the album’s creation are just not duplicable. Corin Tucker, one of the preeminent songwriters of her generation, has a baby, her first. It’s not an easy birth: Kid born two months premature, in the hospital for a while. He turns out OK. Then, a few months after the kid’s birth, terrorists hijack planes and use them to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands. The American government panics, launches two wars, begs everyone to keep buying stuff. In the years since One Beat, I’ve had a couple of kids myself, and I can attest to the furious, all-consuming protectiveness that takes over a new parent. What I can’t imagine is how it feels to be a new parent who almost lost her baby, and who’s watching the world go insane with violence and stupidity around her. Corin Tucker doesn’t have to imagine it. She lived it, and she made an album about it. That album is One Beat.

Sleater-Kinney was one of the great American rock trios, so god knows I don’t want to underplay Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss. They’re all over the album. Brownstein has those cuttingly coy vocal interjections and those fuzzed-out guitar-hero leads. Weiss remains one of the most instinctive rock drummers ever, her controlled boom keeping time but also filling all the spaces that need filling. Anyone who’s heard the Wild Flag album knows what they can do, even without Tucker. And the complicated, intuitive guitar interplay between Tucker and Brownstein — those riffs coiling and winding and answering each other like old friends in conversation — was always an absolute wonder to behold. But more than any other Sleater-Kinney album, One Beat belongs to Corin Tucker. This is the album where she really unleashed that feral, passionate howl, where it found the deepest extremes of gut-scrape. And her lyrics are just shattering things, all love and fear and anger and sadness and hope.

It’s hard to even conceive of it now, but nobody much was saying anything critical of America’s government or its leaders in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. You just weren’t supposed to, and that flustered fear trickled though to just about every corner of society. Even as George W. Bush’s warhawking became more obviously terrifying and insane, he got free reign to do whatever; ask every Democratic Senator who voted for the Iraq war. There were articles where leftist pundits wondered why indie bands weren’t writing protest songs, and it was probably for the same reason that nobody was doing shit protest-wise; the wave of demonstrations around the inevitable beginning of the Iraq war felt like too little, too late. Well, Bush only gets half a bar on One Beat, but it’s enough: “And the president hides while working men rush in and give their lives.” That was from “Far Away,” the opener, which feels like a vital historical document now, Tucker unloading all the confusion and terror she felt while nursing her baby and watching the towers fall on TV.

“Far Away” is one of a handful of explicitly political songs on One Beat, and those songs are all vital and ferocious and still powerful now. But One Beat isn’t strictly a protest album, and the songs about other things still bring that same intensity and commitment. “Oh!” is a fun riot of a song about falling in love, losing yourself in someone; less than a year after One Beat came out, I used it to open the first mixtape that I gave the woman who’s now my wife. “Step Aside” is a different sort of love song — it’s the members of Sleater-Kinney singing about each other, about the (clearly audible) joy that they found playing music together. And the songs that sound something like filler here — “Prisstina,” “Light Rail Coyote” — would be highlights of just about any other album. But there’s one song here that just levels me more than the others, and it’s “Sympathy,” the closer.

There are four songs that never fail to make me tear up a little whenever I play them: “Sympathy,” the Mountain Goats’ “Has Thou Considered The Tetrapod?,” and — if I’m a little drunk, which I always am when I play them — UGK’s “One Day” and the Pogues’ version of “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” “Sympathy” is the song where Tucker thanks God for the safe birth of her son — about the squarest thing you could possibly sing about. But it gets at that joy and triumph and gratitude — and the raw, urgent, world-obliterating fear and despair and protectiveness behind them. Tucker sings about hating the doctor who tells her everything bad that’s happening, about trying to figure out what any of it means, about the smile on her kid’s face. As the music drops out and the rest of the band chants almost animalistically behind her, Tucker yowls, “When the moment strikes, it takes you by surprise, leaves you naked in the face of death and life. There is no righteousness in your darkest moment. We’re all naked in the face of what we’re most afraid of.” Then her voice drops a bit, to the extent that a voice as huge as hers can drop: “And I’m so sorry for those who didn’t make it, all the mommies who are left with their heart breaking.” Seriously. This song obliterates me.

This is primal shit, so I’m underselling the amount of craft that went into this. “Sympathy,” like every song on this album, is an expert rock song — slow and twangy blues riff into cowbell thwacks into drunken-brontosaurus dual-guitar groove. And Sleater-Kinney, who started out strong and never, ever fell off, were at the height of their powers when they recorded this one. The riffs charge, the hooks stick, the tempo changes arrive at the perfect moments. If there’s a little bit of on-paper clumsiness to the lyrics, the band sells those lines completely. Everyone knows her role. Even if the album didn’t strike some deep, deep chords in me, I’d still know that it was great. But when I think of One Beat, all I can think of is that hollowed-out feeling I get when I finish listening to “Sympathy,” and how I always immediately put it right back on again.

A couple of years after One Beat came out, I flew to Portland to interview the band for the now-defunct magazine Devil In The Woods. They were about to release The Woods, and they were a little more than a year away from breaking up. I spent a couple of days with them, and they were all three perfectly lovely people, great company. They all drove station wagons, and they all laughed at each other’s jokes. The weekend before, they’d had a Super Bowl party at Tucker’s house. The first night I hung out with them, we went out for sushi, and I got drunk on sake because it was the only way I could stop my hands from shaking or my voice from trembling, and they graciously acted like they didn’t notice. The next day, nursing a hangover, I went out to lunch with Tucker and tried to tell her what “Sympathy” meant to me — how it made me think about my little sister, born a couple of months premature, and my mom, who almost died giving birth. I probably teared up a little just talking about the song. She was as warm and receptive as I could ever hope, but she didn’t seem especially eager to talk about the song. I don’t blame her. Most people who have been through that sort of trauma don’t like to talk to strangers about it. God knows I wouldn’t be. But she did something better than talk about it: She sang about it. And we should be grateful.

Comments (50)
  1. After reading the “Turn on the Bright Lights” reflection, I was wondering if this was gonna get covered. Bought this and “Kill the Moonlight” on vinyl on the release date. This had the bonus 7″ in it with the adorable song she’d written for Marshall. I put on three albums on my iPod this morning. Time telescope!

  2. Damn, so many good songs on this album. The best ohs in the business on Oh!

    Sympathy live was incredibly powerful. I go back and forth between this album and The Hot Rock as my favorite.

    There’s a really great boot of one of their shows at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in February 2003. It rivals the Emmaboda Fest boot as their top two or three.

  3. When I first heard this album I immediately bought every other sleater-kinney record. Just wish i’d seen them live…

  4. Sleater-Kinney are one of the very few bands to have made six excellent albums in a row (no offense to the debut, which I love). It’s a tough call, but of those six, I think The Hot Rock, One Beat, and The Woods are the masterpieces. I looked through the lists that the Pitchfork staff made as part of the People’s List thing which will be published in the next few days, and I think Sleater-Kinney had more different albums pop up on different writers’ lists than any other band. They were just that great, and thank God I got to see them six times: both shows at the 930 Club in 2000, the DAR Constitution Hall show mentioned above, the show they played to close the film portion of SXSW in 2006, and their final performances in Portland. Those last shows are definitely the best communal experiences I have had at live shows. I was especially happy with One Beat because it was the first album they recorded that somewhat captured their imposing live sound (though it was The Woods that finally nailed that). It still blows my mind that Oh! was not a radio hit; it is beyond catchy and totally rocks. I am also still in awe of the way One Beat balances and sometimes juggles the 9/11 theme with the developments in Carrie and Corin’s personal lives at this time. In my opinion, Carrie and Corin are the best songwriting duo punk has produced.

  5. Combat Rock will always hold a special place in my music-listening heart. It encapsulated what I felt was the absurdity of what the country was going through post-9/11.

  6. This is also my favorite S-K album. Especially love this lyric:

    Show you love your country go out and spend some cash
    Red white blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam

    And damn they were good live – I saw them in a small club and opening for Pearl Jam in an amphitheater, and they killed regardless of venue

  7. one of my top 10 favorite albums, hands down. just an amazing band and an amazing album

  8. Awesome article. While “One Beat” is probably their best record, “Dig Me Out” is still absolute un-arguable fuck-you-if-you-think-differently rock single of the 90s. Hands down.

  9. Pet peeve: when people refer to Carrie Brownstein as “the chick from Portlandia”. Anyone else witnessed this? Unforgivable.

  10. One Beat is incredible, that’s for sure. “O2″ remains one of my favorite songs of all time, the type of song I can listen to no matter how I’m feeling.

  11. The best band of this century. No one compares.

  12. I moved to Portland in ’97 and was fortunate enough to see them many times. This album stands as one of the highlights of an amazing career. I can honestly say that this is the only band that I truly miss.

  13. Dig Me Out came out at the precise moment when I really needed Sleater-Kinney in my life (I was 16 years old and closeted in a very conservative town). In contrast, One Beat came out at a time when I was an stupidly sophisticated college senior and, well, I wasn’t really vibing to them much anymore (sort of like Prisstina, frankly). Regardless, in hindsight, One Beat is clearly the better record — for all the reasons the article describes.

  14. great essay tom

  15. Thank you for this piece!! I’m hearing so much more in this album now, being so young as I was when I first listened years ago I missed the context and backstory entirely. Coincidentally I ordered this CD only yesterday, after finally thinking it was time to buy what I once downloaded for free (the shame).
    Again, thanks.

  16. I was at that show. I saw Sleater-Kinney half a dozen times over the years, but that was, by far, my favorite. The corduroy-clad crowd had no idea what just happened. After they walked off stage, Belle & Sebastian didn’t have a chance.

  17. WHAT ISN’T TURNING 10?!?!?!?

    tango of the night was 25 in April – guess I missed that feature on the gum? Come on guys, keep your game up, please.

  18. Great write-up. The story of the sake was touching. I think this could be their best album, but personally All Hands on the Bad One edges it out for me.

  19. What’s Sleater-Kinney??

    • I guess you’re one of the savvy listeners who participated in Pitchfork’s People’s List voting.

      • Damn, I was one of those people. I put all 6 of their eligible albums on there…gotta say I was pretty furious today.

        • Yeah, I put all 6 of their eligible albums on there too. What a freaking joke the list is. On the list – Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Clap Your Hands Say Whine, Passion Pit, the Streets. Not on the list – Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, Sonic Freaking Youth! Mmmkay.

          • Sleater-Kinney, yeah, totally. Post-1996 Bob Dylan though? Fuck what you heard, that’s a legacy pick. And to be honest, so is Sonic Youth. They’ve put out some great music in that window but nothing among their best and nothing I personally would have put on that list.

          • Yeah, ok, Jake. Dylan “Time out of Mind” or “Modern Times” are not better than Clap Your Hands and Whine or Passion Pit. Sonic Youth “Rather Ripped” or “Thousand Leaves” are not better than Justin Timberlake or the Streets.

          • That’s not what I’m arguing, miguelito1. The consensus picks were poor, but that doesn’t mean we should kowtow to acts we love mostly for their earlier work. For, say, songwriter albums, neither Time Out of Mind nor Modern Times holds one single candle to Tallahassee. We have plenty of classics specific to that time period; there’s no reason to go fishing in others.

          • I finally checked out a few Mountain Goats tracks based on your suggestion. Exactly what I expected – wordy, nasal, and generic, and no real melody, in my opinion. Not fit to lick Dylan’s boots.

          • What about Smog/Bill Callahan? My guess is that with both him and SK all the votes got divided between all their great albums.

      • I’ve been waiting for someone to bring up that fucking list. Fuck that fucking list.

  20. I was also at that show. It was such a pivotal moment for me and so funny to see S-K at Constitution Hall. But it’s true, people went crazy, even the Belle and Sebastian fans. It was a really really great show.

  21. “The Streets? Fuck outta here with that.”

    Explains why you gave Computers and Blues a 5.7

  22. I got this record primarily because i became an activist around the release, and knew these girls were political. The record itself of course fits that ideal as well. I had heard about them originally via Pearl Jam, and im always in the mood for some great northwest rock.

    I can remember in college in 2003/2004 or so, walking around campus at night, getting some air and trying to forget about exams and the war and injustice and listening to this album on earbuds and my ipod shuffle.

    I think this record may be an overlooked record, and an overlooked political album in general.

    One thing I love about these girls is they can really rock out, and i like when they jam. This album had some great moments of that, and they took it to the next level on the follow up to this album The Woods.

    Highlights: that heavy riff in Far Away. The breakdown of The Remainder with what sounds like cello and orchestral instruments. The force that is Light Rail. The riff and Carrie’s phrasing and vocal melodies on Combat Rock, sounds very Clash-esque. I love my dirty uncle sam. I think Funeral Song is catchy, theres nothing else to see turn out the lights. The breakdown on that song is great. Prisstina. When Sympathy gets going that riff is pretty damn awesome.

    Janet, carrie and corin just work so well together. Such great interplay.

  23. wow no love for All hands on the bad one? Thats one of their best

  24. Great article on S-K, the best I’ve seen in a long time.

    “One Beat,” “The Woods” and “Wild Flag” are among the most brilliant records in my thirty-year collection. It’s crazy how big a fan I am of Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss. Wild Flag has absolutely slayed me. I haven’t loved a new band like Wild Flag since (gasp) I first got into the Beatles (yes, I just included Wild Flag in the same sentence as the BEATLES). If I loved the band any more I’d be a stalker.

    What is most significant about the article is its illumination on Corin Tucker’s important contribution to “One Beat.” Owing, I’m sure, to the democratic structure of Sleater-Kinney, there is little, if any, press on exactly who wrote what. With Carrie’s remarkably successful comeback, I was left to assume, understandably, that she had been the main talent in the group. Wrong. Breihan’s article clarifies things for the first time. It’s now clear that, of the two writers in the group, Carrie and Corin are EQUAL sources of S-K’s legendary music.

    I’d like to see more of this. I’ve always been fascinated to know more about Sleater-Kinney songs. What is their story? Who is the main author of each, what is their inspiration and meaning? Is it correct to assume that Corin is the intense, epic master and Carrie the whimsical, catchy one? Or a combination of both? Who wrote “Symphony”, “O2″, “Jumpers”? Explain the symbolism of “The Fox.” How did the astonishing “Let’s Call it Love” come about? Us diehards would love to know. Are you listening, Carrie, as you write your memoir?

    The article gives me a new appreciation of Ms. Tucker. I’m not the only one. In the latest issue (August 30), “Rolling Stone” includes Corin Tucker Band’s “Groundhog Day” as a Favorite Song on their “Playlist.” Impressive track. My ears are pricked: I’ll be in the store September 18 to buy CTB’s “Kill My Blues.” I’m prepared to be slayed once again.

    • Carrie once said that she has more of a pop sensibility and that Corin’s instincts run a bit more rock. I remember Corin saying that she came up with the main riff in Let’s Call It Love. One of them said that Carrie did the verse on I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Corin came up with the chorus. You can find more in the way of specifics if you look through old interviews, but they have always maintained that their songwriting process is very collaborative. This dynamic was perhaps most intense during the Hot Rock sessions; I remember them talking about the challenge of constructing those intricate songs with their often interlocking guitar lines and dualing vocal parts. I think it is somewhat possible to discern who did what in certain songs if you listen to their previous bands (Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy).

  25. Thanks for the input, Michael.

    Full disclosure: Sleater-Kinney just doesn’t click with me until “One Beat.” After falling in love (there’s that word again) with that record I went out and acquired their entire previous catalogue…and never played them. For years. Just “One Beat” and “The Woods” (a million times). Pre-”One Beat”, the band is just too thrashy, too wham-bam, too darn riot grrl for my cup of tea. (Please forgive me; I realize this admission is Sleater-Kinney blasphemy.) “One Beat” is a giant leap forward, a big change in their music to what the band itself has described as more of a classic-rock sound. Much more melodic and catchy. I’m sure with that album S-K greatly increased thier listenership. I hadn’t heard of the band until “Oh!” became a minor college radio hit, which is what led me to the band.

    I have a question for you, Michael. I have researched Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag extensively, but I”ve been unable to find any sales figures for their releases. Do you know the numbers? I’m especially interested in sales for “One Beat”, “The Woods” and “Wild Flag.” Please help out a fellow tribe member.

    • I have no idea about their sales figures and my online searches for information proved fruitless, but I can tell you that the Wikipedia entry for One Beat lists its top chart positions. Also, I think sometime between the Dig Me Out and All Hands eras, all three of them quit their jobs. None of their albums have gone gold, and I remember reading that after Sleater-Kinney ended Carrie tried working a couple of regular jobs and Corin did clerical work for her father, a university professor, as she had in the past. I mean, I would agree that One Beat and the Woods have more complex song structures than the first three albums and All Hands have, but I think if the band said that One Beat and the Woods are closer to classic rock that is mostly what they meant. Personally, I always think of the Clash (incidentally, the band whose music was played through the Crystal Ballroom’s sound system prior to each of the final shows) when I listen to One Beat. Yeah, you can hear dashes of Hendrix and Zeppelin on the Woods, but that is an album that is in love with noise, and I can always hear Sonic Youth and mbv in the guitar tones. I think, with the exception of the Hot Rock, the earlier albums are very riot grrrly, but I don’t know why that would be a strike against them. The songs are still imbued with a lot of emotion and are often very catchy. The Hot Rock is really where the first big change occurred; there is suddenly a wider range of emotion and topics being explored and it is unapologetically arty and minimalist, primarily referencing Television and the Go-Betweens. There are certain songs that are really like two competing songs that have somehow been fused, and you can get something different out of repeated listens depending on whether you focus on Carrie’s or Corin’s parts. As much as I like All Hands, it basically functions like a bridge in the canon; it acknowledges and combines the various preceding styles without breaking any new stylistic ground, thereby being a far less extreme and challenging album than the Hot Rock, which to me is the first masterpiece. At any rate, I would recommend that you not give up on the other S-K albums as well because they are actually very accessible and hummable.

  26. Very interesting reply, Michael, and much appreciated. Okay, you’ve convinced me: I’ll give these early albums another shot. I’m very impressed with your knowledge of the band; you must be correct in the value of these records. I’ll respond soon. It’s nice chatting with someone who is such a good writer.

  27. I am so, so, so glad you wrote so passionately about “Sympathy”. I love One Beat as an album but, like you, that song destroys me every time. I have a family member who lost her baby during pregnancy in a really horrible, rare way and whenever I hear the line about “all the mommies who are left with their hearts breaking” I always think of her and the tears start coming. And this has always been one of Corin Tucker’s strengths. All the way back to the Heavens To Betsy demo tape a friend pointed me to our freshman year of college, I’ve been stunned by how evocative her voice and lyrics are.

    I remember going to see S-K when I was living in New York City and they were touring behind One Beat. (They’d already done some really fantastic live shows in more intimate venues preceding the release, and I was loving the new if unfamiliar songs.) I was not feeling 100% that night and lingered a bit near the back, still adjusting to the much larger venues this beloved band was playing. (I first saw them opening for The Third Sex in a tiny basement show in Seattle. Opening!) They were tight, intense, on point and fun as hell as always. And Corin’s voice was as powerful as ever. But when they got to “Sympathy”, it was like a whole other tone came into it. Even without a close visual reference point, I could tell that she wasn’t just singing the song, she was reliving it. I stood there with tears in my eyes, amazed that she could even get through the song in front of such a huge crowd. But that was always part of the magic of Sleater-Kinney: they took us down some dark paths and did so without apology. I could rhapsodize on and on about this band and its members but I’ll stop here. Your piece was excellent. I have to now listen to One Beat in its entirety before I go on with the rest of my day!

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