4. Call The Doctor (1996)
For a document so quickly executed, the debut was a hell of a thing. Call The Doctor adds to the palette while exhibiting a keener sense of sequencing. (Sleater-Kinney has the two shortest songs in the band's catalog -- either of which could have been a ripping opener -- and closes with three straight tracks with the word "song" in the title.) Brownstein ups her vocal contributions, offering soaring countermelodies on "Stay Where You Are," high-flown support on "Hubcap," rejoinders on the title track. Macfarlane keeps the kit on lock, an improvement on her work on the debut -- understandable, given the compressed nature of Sleater-Kinney's recording. "Hubcap" features her deconstructed beat -- dig those off-beat cymbal hits -- and she also chips in backing vocals on a handful of tracks. According to Wikipedia, she played guitar on the wide-eyed closer "Heart Attack," which, just like debut's "The Last Song," is sung by Brownstein. Her screaming stands in stark contrast to the gentle arpeggiation, just another example of the band's capability to subvert expectations.
At this point in their career -- and, really, very rarely afterward -- Sleater-Kinney did not deal in quietude. As writers and singers, Tucker and Brownstein masterfully forsook vulnerability; the sentiments were raw, even incendiary, but like their scene forebears, they're presented as inquiries, not apologies. For every statement of pride like "Call The Doctor" ("This is love and you can't make it/ In a formula or shake me") there's a deeply ambivalent cut like "I'm Not Waiting," in which Tucker declares "I'm not waiting/ Till I grow up/ To be a woman," then switches to "Till I throw up." A blazing emotional tone colors the music, whether on the live-wire mod-punk of "Little Mouth," or "Taking Me Home," a sea shanty that keeps listing into the minor key. Even "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" -- the most well-known track on Call The Doctor -- though it explodes with gleeful see-saw yowls on the refrain, it mostly crawls forward on the low end, accruing that death-drive energy.
"Joey" is where the band's ambitions got explicit. The title can certainly scan as twee, but Tucker claims a different kind of desire, crowning herself "the queen of rock and roll." At the time, it was probably more an acknowledgement of the peculiar nature of scene popularity; after all, who but a tuned-in music geek would consider Joey (to say nothing of Thurston Moore, who also gets a namecheck) the king of rock and roll? At the same time, Sleater-Kinney were staking their claim to the kind of plaudits accorded all too infrequently to bands masterminded by women. Soon enough, this song would look like a prophecy; at the time, it must have seemed like an astounding wish.
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.