Sleater-Kinney’s 10 Best Cover Songs
Last year Sleater-Kinney put a period on their world-shaking, band-revitalizing 2015 with a nearly weeklong victory lap across some of New York’s finest venues. (They also played Terminal 5.) During the run, the iconic punk band, with help from one of their famous friends, revived their take on the B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” one of the oldest cover songs in their repertoire, and added an appropriately seasonal new one to the mix with a run-through of the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight).” The videos that inevitably followed were a welcome reminder that, although the band had understandably stuck to their own material during their 2015 shows (after all, they had both a strong new album and a catalog of classics that fans hadn’t seen live in a decade), they’ve always had a way with other people’s songs. But where do the above-mentioned songs rank in the great list of Sleater-Kinney covers? Read on.
10. “Rockin’ In The Free World” (Feat. Pearl Jam) (Originally by Neil Young)
Pearl Jam have been encoring with this Neil Young song for almost as long as they’ve been a band, and as such this feels like more a Pearl Jam cover that Sleater-Kinney just happened to be onstage for, which is why it’s ranked so low despite being pretty great. (Ex-R.E.M.ers Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey also join in; when Pearl Jam comes to town I guess everyone drops by.) But this list wouldn’t be complete without it, for the following three reasons: 1) Corin Tucker stepped up to her verse and owned it as though no time had passed since the band had been onstage; 2) Carrie Brownstein’s smile around the 4:30 mark was and is a thing of life-affirming beauty; 3) Nearly everyone I know lost their shit as soon as this video was posted. True story: A day after this clip started making the rounds I ran into Sleater-Kinney #1 fan Rob Sheffield at a show, and the first thing he said was, “Did you see that? Are Sleater-Kinney going to reunite? That would be amazing!” Truer words. And while we’re on the subject of Pearl Jam, I gave serious thought to including this version of Temple Of The Dog’s “Hunger Strike” that Tucker and Janet Weiss joined Pearl Jam onstage for, but ultimately decided that since Brownstein wasn’t there, it didn’t count. That said, you should check it out anyway, as she makes those Chris Cornell high parts her bitch. (It also needs to be pointed out that it’s simply unbecoming that Mike McCready is wearing a Pearl Jam shirt in said video.)
9. “White Rabbit” (Originally by Jefferson Airplane)
To borrow a phrase, Jefferson Airplane have been written out of continuity. Once considered iconic, these days they aren’t held up as titans like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Who, nor are they cult heroes like Love or the Zombies, and they don’t even have contrarian defenders like the Doors. Instead, they serve as a handy example of how the idealistic ’60s flower children turned into the empty hedonists of the ’70s into the soulless money chasers of the ’80s. (Call it the Starship Effect.) But as Sleater-Kinney point out, Grace Slick managed to give the band a few moments they probably didn’t deserve. This cover ambles along faithfully, but true to the source material, it doesn’t gather steam until the end, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that classic-rock head Tucker (there’s Aerosmith, MC5, and Boston S-K covers out there that didn’t make the cut) had to talk the rest of the band into doing this one, as it’s the loosest cover on this list.
8. “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” (Originally by Richard & Linda Thompson)
There’s a sad alternate universe wherein Sleater-Kinney ended after Tucker and Brownstein ceased their romantic relationship. Thank God that didn’t happen in this timeline, or else we never would have gotten “One More Hour,” and dozens upon dozens of other great songs. Navigating that transition from romantic partners to just creative partners is no doubt tricky, so it makes sense that they’d have a healthy respect for Richard and Linda Thompson, two arty British folk singers who publicly transitioned from marriage to strictly being in a working relationship. This song doesn’t lack for covers, but this is one of the best out there, as Brownstein hones in on the desperation at the core of the song, sounding like a lonely person who hasn’t had a night out in ages.
7. “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” (Originally by the Ramones)
They made it clear long ago that they wanted to be our Joey Ramone, so this was perhaps inevitable. Debuted during their New York run with Brownstein ceding ax duties to touring member Katie Harkin, this cover shuns sentimentality and instead finds a nice balance between festive and feisty, with our singer at times sounding like she might, in fact, be up for a fight or two.
6. “Angry Inch” (Feat. Fred Schneider) (Originally by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell)
Tucker has repeatedly cited the B-52s as one of her formative influences, and in addition to an aquatic adventure which we’ll get to in a bit, there’s also a (not particularly well-recorded) cover of “Private Idaho” circulating out there, but this take on the Hedwig And The Angry Inch showstopper finds the band going direct to the source and recruiting Fred Schneider for help with the chorus and a droll mid-song interlude concerning a botched sex change and a “one-inch mound of flesh.” This was recorded for Wig In A Box: Songs From & Inspired by Hedwig And The Angry Inch, a charity album benefiting the Harvey Milk High School. Covers are often a chance for a band to play dress-up and explore ideas they wouldn’t normally pursue, and this take is appropriately campy and theatrical without every coming off as a joke, with a little more glam flair than the trio usually allow themselves.
5. “Tommy Gun” (Originally by the Clash)
Sleater-Kinney named a song “Combat Rock,” but clearly they were a bit worried that their fans didn’t know how much they love The Only Band That Matters, so they went ahead and covered this crucial cut from Give ‘Em Enough Rope as well. Sleater-Kinney are generally smart enough to not mess with what doesn’t need improving when it comes to their cover selections. Instead of radical reinvention, they tend to just play the shit out of songs they really love, as they do here, with Janet Weiss nailing Topper Headon’s machine-gun crack drums. Though all the rock scholars in the group would be quick to point out that the song is a protest against pointless terrorist violence, the line “you can be a hero in a world of none” is still an efficient summary of Sleater-Kinney’s raison d’etre.
4. “Rock Lobster” (Feat. Fred Armisen) (Originally by the B-52’s)
When people write and talk about Sleater-Kinney, there tends to be a focus on how this band saves lives, the power of their music, and their willingness to look hard at difficult subjects like power-imbalances, constructed feminine identity, depression, economic inequality, and learned helplessness. It’s one reason why people love them so much. Another reason people love this band so much is that they are just so much fucking fun. Seriously, I know us music writers can make them sound like a walking dissertation, but their shows are just a blast, full of non-stop hooks, dancing, and priceless stage banter. (It wasn’t that much of a surprise to longtime fans that Brownstein launched a second career as a comedic actress; I remember the horrified look on Tucker’s face at their Coachella 2006 when Brownstein free-associated about how her band probably had more in common with Tool than Madonna.) During their recent New York run, the band embraced their goofy side and ongoing B-52’s obsession by bringing out Brownstein’s Portlandia co-star Fred Armisen for an unnervingly precise Schneider impression. (Fun fact: the band first did this cover back in the ’90s, with K Records head Calvin Johnson handling the Fred-vocals.) Abetted by Harkin’s groovy organ riffs, this is about as silly as a band sometimes unfairly pegged as being a bit too serious can get; come for the sight of Tucker wearing a pink wig, stay for her dolphin noises. (Also, the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame is too stupid to bother arguing about, I know, but it’s still homophobic bullshit that the B-52’s aren’t in that shit.)
3. “The Promised Land” (Originally by Bruce Springsteen)
The primary reason for Sleater-Kinney’s continued appeal is they’re a great band that plays great songs with more passion than anyone else. That said, one of the most delightful subtexts of the group’s career has been their tendency toward playing with gender inversion and willingness to assume the role of the traditionally masculine rock savior, and doing so with more gusto than any of the boys can muster. Ever since they wanted to be your Joey Ramone, they’ve been a modern Prometheus, stealing (often unearned) male power and giving it back to their fans. This idea reaches its zenith on this cover of Bruce Springsteen’s working-class lament from Darkness On the Edge Of Town, with “Mister I ain’t a boy/ No I’m a man/ And I believe in a promised land” being such a perfect fit for this group that they could have written it themselves. Also, Weiss is playing the harmonica while drumming on this, because there’s nothing Janet Fucking Weiss can’t do.
2. “Mother” (Originally by Danzig)
As a singer, Corin Tucker has been called a lot of things, usually some variation on “powerful” and “commanding.” She is rarely called “intimidating” or “terrifying.” Her dominant archetype for most of the band’s career has been of a universal mother-type, willing to fight for those she cares about (which is almost all of us, really), but only out of fierce, protective love. But covers have a way of bringing into focus an aspect of a musician that’s normally hidden, and her singing the words of the best song of Glenn Danzig’s solo career makes one thing perfectly clear: This singer is a force of nature that will smite you if you dare cross her. Those notes she’s hitting at the end? Good God. You want to find hell with her? Go ahead. She’s got more than enough to spare.
1. “Fortunate Son” (Originally by Creedence Clearwater Revival)
In her recent memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Brownstein talks about touring with Pearl Jam in 2003, playing to mainstream crowds largely unfamiliar with her band’s music, hoping to get the attention of people “getting their hot dogs and beer and who eventually looked up from their conversation to watch a song or two.” I saw one of those shows. I was living in Florida, a swing state that felt severed-artery red at the time. (Remind me to tell you guys sometime about the fight that almost broke out at the Bright Eyes shows a few days after the Iraq War began.) I swear I’m not just saying this to sound cool, but I was at the show more for Sleater-Kinney, who were touring for One Beat (still their best album IMO) than for Pearl Jam (whom I’ve always respected more than I love, but who among us can’t get down with “Corduroy”?). It was a great show, and then at the end of the set, they tore into John Fogerty’s classic Vietnam anthem, rediscovering the rebel heart in a song that’s been licensed and covered to death. They make it sound like a Sleater-Kinney song, which is the highest compliment one can give rock music. There was no need for the band to dedicate it George W. Bush. It was searingly obvious who they meant by “millionaire’s son” and even more obvious what they thought of him. You better believe that when they launched into this, people put their fucking hot dogs down.