Formed in Olympia, Washington in 1994 by two Evergreen State College students, guitarist/vocalists Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy and Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17 (listed as Carrie Kinney on the band’s first two records), Sleater-Kinney was originally intended as a side-project, although it wouldn’t be long before the new band became its members’ primary focus. Emerging from the tail end of Olympia’s riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney incorporated that scene’s feminist punk into its own sound, combining aggression and lyrical purpose with tender emotional honesty, innovation, beauty and good old-fashioned rock.
Sleater-Kinney recorded four songs with drummer Misty Farrell for the tiny East Coast label Villa Villakula before departing for an Australian tour soon after their formation in early 1994. While down under they recruited Aussie drummer Lora Macfarlane (ex-Sea Hags) and recorded their self-titled debut, released the following spring on Donna Dresch’s Portland, Oregon-based label, Chainsaw (10-inch vinyl on Villa Villakula). An apt mix of Tucker and Brownstein’s work in their other bands (with Brownstein finding more room to establish her distinct, single-note guitar style), Sleater-Kinney is a classic case of riot grrrl punk. Tucker’s wailing vocals and grinding rhythm guitar lock in a fierce duel with Brownstein’s zig-zagging riffs and plainspoken vocals — the band’s unmistakable sound is already present, although clearly under development. Most significantly, the strong melodic instincts Tucker displayed on Heavens to Betsy’s powerful Calculated shine through the band’s raw sound and equally raw production. Lyrically, the two contemplate gender roles and the intrusion of commerce into their art and politics and share an uncompromising look at their personal relationships.
With Macfarlane in the States on a work visa, the trio recorded a follow-up in the fall of 1995 with producer John Goodmanson, who had worked with both Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17. Call the Doctor can be seen as the first proper Sleater-Kinney record, as Tucker and Brownstein had by this point left their previous bands, dedicating themselves fully to their new project. Indeed, there is a world of difference between the noisy punk of the debut and the sharply defined attack here. Certainly some of the credit is due to Goodmanson’s production, but the album’s real strength is the songwriting. By merging the jarring angles and fiery rage of feminist art punk with the foot-tapping rhythms, sweeping song structures and ingratiating melodies of more mainstream rock, Sleater-Kinney revive both. From the frantic “Little Mouth,” to the reflective “Good Things,” to the alternate-universe hit “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” in which they declare their desire to shatter gender-based stereotypes in the process of becoming rock gods, Call the Doctor, like its successor, is an essential part of any punk collection.
Macfarlane’s visa expired and she left the band to return to Australia. With the coincidental end to the romantic aspect of Tucker and Brownstein’s relationship, Sleater-Kinney might well have disbanded, but instead they recruited Toni Gogin on drums and proceeded to tour behind the album. Quasi drummer Janet Weiss contacted the group about the drum job and became a permanent member in time to record 1997’s Dig Me Out, again with Goodmanson behind the board. Although very much a continuation of its predecessor, Dig Me Out benefits greatly from Sleater-Kinney’s growing comfort and confidence; Weiss adds a rhythmic punch and makes the band whole for the first time. The result is an incendiary onslaught of irresistibly invigorating and catchy punk anthems. Brownstein emerges here as a full blown guitar anti-hero, the urgency of her perpetual motion eighth-notes raising the album’s nervous energy. In many ways the definitive Sleater-Kinney album, highlighted by “Turn It On,” “Not What You Want,” “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” and the title track, Dig Me Out would serve as the departure point from which the band would push its sound in new directions.
Bringing in Yo La Tengo producer Roger Moutenot to produce The Hot Rock was as much a declaration of intent as it was a sound-based decision. Although it still sounds like Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock steps back from the blistering edge of the group’s previous records to further explore the dynamics of their music. Using the two vocals, two guitars and drums as five distinct voices, at times all playing contrasting rhythms, the band creates a phenomenal sense of tension and release that adds considerable emotional weight to the oftentimes overlapping lyrics and melodies. Weiss’s extremely musical drumming shines through as more than just timekeeping. Likewise, Tucker is able to fully explore the range and power of her voice, which sounds better here than ever before. The band’s collective musicianship and songwriting support the shift, resulting in their most emotionally engaging work, from the heartbreaking “The Size of Our Love” to the ferociously defiant “The End of You” and the epic anticipation of “Get Up.”
The return of producer John Goodmanson and a more direct approach in the wake of the majesty of The Hot Rock could have made All Hands on the Bad One a letdown, but it’s not. A fantastic record that takes the growth of The Hot Rock and channels it back into their prior sonic sensibility, All Hands is an immediate blast of powerful, hook-laden rock. Although the record is superficially light-hearted (the lead single “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” tells you all you really need to know about the album’s tone), it is lyrically aggressive, reflecting on the conflict between the band’s idealist origins and the pressures of success, commerce and the male-dominated media. Set to Weiss’s swinging party beats, “Ballad of the Ladyman” and “The Professional” explore this tension, while Tucker, in magnificent voice, sums everything up on “Male Model,” venomously proclaiming, “I’m so sick of tests / Go ahead and flunk my ass!” Introducing three-part harmony to Sleater-Kinney, Weiss’s backing vocals on the gorgeous lament “Leave You Behind” help flesh out a song that would have been unthinkable on the band’s early records but fits seamlessly here.
Sleater-Kinney took 2001 off. Tucker and her husband, video director Lance Bangs, became parents to the playfully named Marshall Tucker Bangs. The infant figures in the lyrics and liner notes of 2002’s One Beat, most significantly on the powerful closer “Sympathy,” in which Tucker begs God for the life of her premature child. Marshall also plays a small role in Tucker’s 9/11 response song, the deeply unsettling “Far Away.” The decision to place it second on an album that is otherwise a “big rock record” more or less derails the entire enterprise — it’s nearly impossible to enjoy the bubbly bounce of the subsequent “Oh!,” with its cutesy vocal and swooping keyboard interjections, when the echoes of Tucker bellowing “Don’t breathe the air today / Don’t speak of why you’re afraid / Why can’t I get along with you” are still ringing in your ears and mind. Those with the emotional frigidity (or itchy skip-button finger) to get around this speed bump are treated to a terrific collection of songs that, on the shimmying rally-cry “Step Aside” and the jagged declaration of dissent “Combat Rock,” address the post-9/11 environment with a healthy dose of cynicism. Sleater-Kinney, who have never been averse to supplementary instrumentation (the subtle use of strings and keyboards can be heard as early as Dig Me Out), go to town on One Beat, with horns that propel “Step Aside” and strings that subtly emerge from Brownstein’s leads during the choruses of “The Remainder.” While such additions are not unwelcome, One Beat less happily reveals the band’s discovery of Pro Tools, the studio software that has done so much to dehumanize Top 40 music. The result is a troubling hint of overproduction — most noticeable on the occasionally heavily treated backing vocals — that finds the band precariously moving away from the raw, organic feel that had always been its strength.
As might be expected from a band started as one, Sleater-Kinney has given birth to numerous side projects over the course of its existence. Tucker’s Cadallaca (with Sarah Dougher on Farfisa organ and vocals and STS on drums, both ex-Lookers) has proved to be the most significant. Their 1998 debut on K Records, produced by Calvin Johnson, is a tuneful low-fi collection of agreeably playful guitar-and-organ tracks and Tucker’s pop songwriting. The four-song Out West is more of the same, which is a good thing.
Brownstein and Mary Timony of Helium recorded The Age of Backwards E.P. as the Spells in 1999. The three moody pop songs and a guitar-and-voice cover of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” make for a brief but enjoyable curiosity. Brownstein also recorded a 7-inch for K in 1998 with the Tentacles, a group also containing Lois Maffeo, former Heavenly and Marine Research guitarist Peter Momtchiloff and Scott Livingstone from the Evaporators.