5. All Hands On The Bad One (2000)
In 1999, Sleater-Kinney were tapped for Belle & Sebastian's inaugural Bowlie Weekender festival. They were stopped cold in the artists' reception tent; on a chalkboard listing the lodging assignments, someone had scrawled "ladymen -- yes" next to the number of their chalet. They duly converted the tone-deaf joke into "Ballad Of A Ladyman," a stunning combination of glam Bowie and adult alternative wherein Tucker croons about the pressure to conform, something the band still faced, even as they continued to annex exciting new territory. According to the band, even at this late date people were still asking when they were going to add a bassist. They didn't want one, they didn't need one, but unlike the White Stripes (pretty early into their career at this point), some still saw its absence as a bug, not a feature.
Ask Prince: conjuring a bass is a much cooler trick. On a pair of All Hands' lean rock and rollers, you'd swear someone is holding down the low-end. I refer, of course, to "All Hands On the Bad One" and "You're No Rock N' Roll Fun," a Beatles-indebted rave-up that harkens back to the coy playfulness of prime NW indie pop with a peculiar poignancy. (Perhaps it's that beautiful harmony on the final chorus.) Five albums in, it's clear that S-K still had every intention of having fun and surprising on their hard-won terms. Tucker drops a few obvious French signifiers on both "Male Model" and "Milkshake N' Honey": the former cheerfully offers to re-gender the rock hierarchy; the latter finds Tucker dropping into her lower register for a louche tale of a Parisian fling. In a scene that was still a couple years away from thinking it had invented dancing, Sleater-Kinney kept cranking out booty-shaking, sub-three-minute feminist anthems.
Sleater-Kinney: the name suggests a joint sociological survey, or perhaps a university residence hall. Turns out it’s the Lacey, WA street on which the band held practices. It’s a fitting name for a group that spent more than a decade interrogating the nature of being a band. Formed by two Evergreen State University students in the searing heat of the riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney maintained a breakneck pace: releasing seven albums in 10 years, touring worldwide, and providing some of the more intelligent interviews in rock.
In a sense, Sleater-Kinney (whose classic lineup consists of drummer Janet Weiss and founding members/guitarists/vocalists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker) were one of the most professional bands of the indie-rock boom. Theirs was a non-corporate professionalism, one that saw them reach astounding levels of popularity without ever jumping the indie-label ship. They kept their heads down and challenged each other toward greatness, in the process expanding their instrumental and structural vocabulary through seven fantastic-to-incredible albums. Fame, motherhood, breakups, marriage: None of it could slow Sleater-Kinney down.
While Wikipedia still, as of today, has Sleater-Kinney pegged as a “riot grrrl” band, that’s clearly not the whole story. The riot grrrl scene was a revolution on par with ’77 punk or the first wave of American hardcore — two scenes that, despite their democratic promise, proved to be largely unaccommodating for women. It was a free region for feminist ideas and feelings and alliances and outrage, incorporating art and poetry and zinemaking and theory. Like John Peel’s beloved indie hobbyists or the DC peripherals dutifully chronicled by Ian MacKaye, the majority of self-identified riot grrrls saw expression as a vital end in itself. The idea wasn’t to do something important. It was to do something, which was inherently important.
Having said that, Sleater-Kinney was unique. Their first album, recorded in a day, put them on the map. By their third record, they were underground stars. A bassless power trio, with Tucker holding down the rumbling low-end and Brownstein darting about with curled midrange lines, Sleater-Kinney developed an awesome chemistry, as lines seamlessly meshed and clashed within the confines of a hooky three-minute song. In Weiss, the band had one of indie rock’s greatest treasures, a drummer capable of everything from assault-rifle rolls to the thundering tomwork of the gods. They wrote pop songs, punk-rock songs, songs of seething dudgeon and sexist nose-tweaking. They spent an album unpacking 9/11 and being a mom, and it was a triumph. Then, having taken their sound to its developmental endpoint, they went to the woods for intuitive, monolithic thrashing.
To see Sleater-Kinney as a riot grrrl band does them a bit of a disservice; to see them as an indie rock band, on the other hand, does a disservice to their origin, and their ideals. Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss were keen to lay out (and explode) the expectations set out by a larger world. They never stopped rocking about rock, because they were always thinking about it (and it was always being thrown in their faces). But when they sang about someone pricing your body or crawling up the stairway to heaven, it was never just about music. Sleater-Kinney remains on hiatus, but we’re still reenacting the same battles.
What follows is a list of Sleater-Kinney albums in some kind of order. Worst to best, ostensibly, but they’re all indispensable. We can talk Portlandia in the comments. Start the Countdown here.