Words And Guitar – A Sleater-Kinney Retrospective

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Words And Guitar - A Sleater-Kinney Retrospective

Taken from their break-through 1997 album Dig Me Out, the anthemic ‘Words and Guitar’ encapsulates a now legendary band that meant everything to the devoted fans they attracted. Across a career that spanned just over a decade they were a band that stood for many things. Releasing seven albums they traversed from the Riot Grrrl movement that brought them together through liberalism, feminism, politics and many other subjects to their most outlandishly Rock (with a capital R) ‘final’ album The Woods. It was never done by brash sloganeering or propaganda, they just did what they did, stated what they believed in with no uncertainty and always with integrity and independence. Above all of that they were primarily a rock band, words and guitar, and they liked it “way, way too loud”.

It feels strange writing about Sleater-Kinney in the past tense. They’ve returned after a break that’s lasted almost as long as they were active. At time of writing reviews are starting to appear for their new album No Cities to Love. I’ve seen three so far, two five star ratings and one 90% so they’re still the darlings of critical acclaim. Have you ever seen a bad Sleater-Kinney review? In October 2014 Sub Pop released Start Together, a career spanning box-set, exciting enough for fans like myself but the twist was the inclusion of a secret 7” single with a new song and the date 01/20/15 stamped on it. A cleverly executed marketing campaign kicked into place. They had a Facebook page, joined Twitter, a new website and a new song ‘Bury Our Friends’. Most importantly they had finished recording a new album and tour dates were announced.

I first heard Sleater-Kinney when a friend gave me their Dig Me Out album. The intro to the opening title track was as long as it took to be forever smitten. It sounded raw and fresh, urgent and intense. It’s a breathtaking start to an album and the quality never wavers on any of its 13 tracks. At the time I was unaware this was their third album and took a while to track down Call the Doctor and even longer to find their eponymous debut but I got there eventually.

For me it’s obvious what the key features of Sleater-Kinney’s music are that make them stand out. Vocal interplay, guitar interplay and the addition of Janet Weiss on drums in 1996. It all revolves around the relationship between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, one of those magical musical combinations that we can put down to serendipity, the meeting of two like-minded people whose product is so much more than the sum of the parts. Both have released plenty excellent music outside of Sleater-Kinney but the spark when they’re together is unmistakable.

Corin Tucker’s voice is mesmerising and one of the most identifiable and dominating features of the band’s sound. She has the ability to sound pissed off, intense, determined, stentorian yet heartbreaking, often all in the same song. It’s a perfect fit with Carrie’s more taut vocals. The band’s guitar playing matches that of the voices. There’s no bass but the guitars are tuned lower than normal which, along with the skill of the songwriting, makes them sound unique. The interweaving guitars loop and meander around each other perfectly, like a double helix, creating incredible textures and melodies, sounding more complex than it probably is and providing a sound bed for vocals to float over. Drums, so often just there to keep time but Janet Weiss finds a way to lift the music, propel it to another level. I can’t think of any other musicians that complement each other so well.

They’re girls. Does that matter? I’d love to say it doesn’t, it certainly shouldn’t but in a male dominated world (and especially a heavily male dominated music industry) they were a wonderful example of the female empowerment they sang about, the proof that girls could do it better. They were thought provoking, encouraging and inspiring to me and I’m male. For that reason I’ll leave the feminist arguments to the gender that knows more about it although I can say with some confidence that they were a band that helped thousands of women find their voice. They were described by Greil Marcus in Time magazine as the best American rock band and, whether that’s a source you care about or not, that doesn’t often happen to female bands.

Favourite songs? It’s almost impossible. One key indicator of a special band is that your favourite song / album is the last one you listened to. Tomorrow it’ll be something else again. This is certainly true of Sleater-Kinney which highlights the incredible consistency they’ve achieved over their previous output. They have songs that bring out every kind of emotion, a band that untie the knots in your head. Judging by what I’ve heard so far this quality hasn’t diminished on their new record. For today I’ll argue that they’re at their best with some of their most accessible songs, big rock choruses and endless hooks.

‘Jumpers’ from 2005’s The Woods, a song apparently about suicides from the Golden Gate bridge. It’s a song that screams of desperation, the tension in the verses created by the anxious guitars and vocal harmonies delivering strained lyrics “I spend the afternoon in cars / I sit in traffic jams for hours / Don’t push me I am not ok”. The chorus launches out of the verse and Corin’s voice soars, knowing exactly what notes to hit to tear your insides out. The ending lyric, “Four seconds was the longest wait” (I’d imagine representing the time it takes to fall from the bridge) is sung by Corin and screamed by Carrie before it all crashes to a halt like the end of a long and fatal descent. It’s a powerful and exhausting song, utterly compelling from start to finish.

I’ve picked ‘Jumpers’ out as an example, it could have been any of dozens of songs. The punk dream of “I Wanna be Your Joey Ramone” from Call the Doctor, the female fun of “Oh!” from One Beat, “Start Together”, the opener on The Hot Rock, ‘You’re No Rock n’Roll Fun’ from All Hands on the Bad One, “One More Hour”, the devastating break-up song from Dig Me Out and pretty much any other song from that album (Ok, it’s my favourite, most days anyway). Across the 90 or so songs they’ve released to date you’ll struggle to find anything disappointing.

So that leaves us with what’s to come. The indefinite hiatus felt very definite for years but now it’s over. The return of Sleater-Kinney has meant several things to me. Firstly, I’ve loved listening to all the records again, not that I ever stopped but it’s been heavy rotation since October. Secondly, I’m extremely jealous of new fans they’ll undoubtedly pick up who have this amazing back catalogue to discover. Third and finally, excitement, they’re back, and somehow, despite the length of time, it feels like they were never gone.