It’s fine when it’s all mine, it’s on my wall, it’s in my head: The poster on my apartment door came from Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out tour. It’s got Corin, Carrie, and Janet lined up in Brady Bunchstyle squares, alongside a slightly disturbing picture of a little girl and her dog and what looks like her mother close by. Above my computer is a publicity shot of the trio standing in a hallway of an old house with a dalmatian behind them. And on my fridge, hanging next to a postcard of Cyndi Lauper in a Norma Desmond costume and a photo of me and my best girlfriend Megan, there’s another photo of them standing beneath either a sunset or a sunrise.
On the floor of the room where I work is the latest issue of Punk Planet, with them on the cover in sweaty mid-performance. It reminds me of the first time I saw Sleater-Kinney, with my other best girlfriend Janet, who I like seeing bands with because she doesn’t talk about discographies or dominant paradigms or which side of what Velvet Underground album is better than whatever Stooges record. Sometimes we don’t talk at all. On that ’96 night in the anything-but-cool Cooler, we kept turning to each other, smiling, and saying, “This is so. . . . ” It was as if we were in on some secret that we didn’t have the language to explain. And we didn’t really care.
Sleater-Kinney remind me of my favorite album in the world, X-Ray Spex’s Germfree Adolescents, which pitted teenage arti-fi-cial insta-matic ruler-of-the-supermarket Poly Styrene against the Day-Glo world. While I wish Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein had half of Poly’s playfulness, they’ve inherited her end-of-the-world time capsule quality— that frozen fleeting moment when anything seems possible. “It’s 1977 and we’re gonna show them all that aaa-pa-thy’s a draaaag!”: I always feel both elated and sad at the end of Germfree Adolescents, happy to share their moment, sad Poly left the madness behind. But I can’t say I blame her. With Sleater-Kinney records I feel that way too, that they’re too good for this world, and that all the people I once knew can’t really be themselves like they were yesterday.
Corin’s vibrato is a human teardrop, a whitepunk soul device so fake it’s real. The same one Joey Ramone and Chrissie Hynde and Belinda Carlisle stole from Ronnie Spector. The one that hits you and feels like a kiss. The one that says do or die. The one that realizes when I looked at you, I should have run. But I thought this was just for fun.
Like girl-group songs, Sleater-Kinney songs talk the way girls talk— in Crossfire-style interruptions and confessions, gossip and unconditional sympathy and encouragement and endless methodical analysis of emotional trivia. In “Memorize Your Lines” on their new The Hot Rock, Corin and Carrie talk over each other, both trying and failing to follow a script, wanting to undo the performance of their lives, but they can’t rewind they’ve gone too far. If you want to know if it’s Jimmy’s ring Corin’s wearing, you get the question and answer at the same time. Their guitars talk over each other too, mimicking their voices. Sometimes you feel like an eavesdropper, sometimes you feel they’re talking to you. Usually you can’t tell the difference.
You also don’t know if they’re friends or lovers, which is how most girl-on-girl friendships are: delicate, volatile things like games of truth or dare. Girl power looks nice on bubble gum cards and posters and stickers, but truth is, we practice Machiavellian rip-her-to-shreds politics from the playground to the office. We compete for male attention. We form little clubs and keep out the ones that are too fat too skinny too weird too young too old too slutty not slutty enough. Even after riot grrrl and Lilith and Girl Power, all-female bands are still anomalies, and I’m willing to bet it’s more personal than political. I dream a lot about being in bands or roving girl gangs who drink and shop and gossip and flirt, but my female friends are always fighting with each other.
I have to admit, I didn’t want to go anywhere near The Hot Rock. It’s emotional kryptonite, Sleater-Kinney’s darkest album to date. No relief. At least Call the Doctor balanced “Good Things” with “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and Dig Me Out balanced “One More Hour” with “Words and Guitar.” Records are supposed to save your life when you can’t be friends or enemies with ones you love after they lock the door on that room and hour you left behind, but The Hot Rock is unrelenting. If you want any of the rock lobster dum-dum-diddies of “Little Babies” or “Dance Song ’97,” you’ll have to turn to Corin’s side trio, Cadallaca, featuring the organist (part-time Crab Sarah Dougher) and drummer (named “sts”) from the Lookers. Where S-K drummer Janet Weiss’s moonlighting project, Quasi, is a downbeat portrait of divorce and dying, Introducing Cadallaca has night vandals, pocket games, winter storm walks,
girls in Brooks Brothers suits, and a girl named Chenilla, the crush of all crushes, the kind no one else can see or understand because everyone thinks she’s a drag.
But on Sleater-Kinney’s way less innocent Hot Rock, love can make or break a band, stand up against the millennium, even stand up against death. The opening track, “Start Together,” starts off the way all S-K first songs do, an epic call to arms by lovers not fighters. Corin calls herself a mess but a good one, like Luscious Jackson in “Energy Sucker.” But one on one, love tears her apart again— some things you lose, some things you give away. And it’s always the heart.
The title track compares relationships to jewelry heists, where you’re trying to figure out your partner in crime as well as the mission itself. When Carrie sings, “You tell me not to steal yet you want a thief,” her road trip and her partner’s ever-changing moods remind me of Liz Phair in “Divorce Song”: “You put in my hand a loaded gun and then told me not to fire it.” In other words, be careful what you wish for.
“Don’t Talk Like” sounds like a drunken e-mail, or the answer on the back of an emotional Trivial Pursuit card. It’s the most indie song on the album, all droney and discordant with no momentum, the sound of someone gritting her teeth— or worse, shrugging her shoulders. It’s like the band is pretending less is more, when really less is less. And “God Is a Number” is another great idea that’s kind of unlistenable. It reminds me how our nervous systems don’t seem to be made for these times, how everybody needs antidepressants just to keep up with technology. Our ghosts are in the machine and can’t get out: Herky-jerky Throwing Muses guitar wires tangle up and don’t go anywhere.
The much dancier “Banned From the End of the World,” the first Y2K song I’ve actually liked, is a smarter solution: “Banned from the end of the world I’ve no millennial fear. The future is here, it comes every year,” Carrie sings breathlessly. Then Corin chimes in, asking to be thrown out when the party’s over like it’s 1999.
Carrie is a good foil; she’s Jane Wiedlin to Corin’s Belinda Carlisle. Her “The Size of Our Love” is the saddest of the sad: “Our love is the size of this hospital room, you’re my hospital groom.” But Corin’s “Get Up” makes death sound like a relief, like a passage to some higher plane. And her “Living in Exile” reminds me of the poem Angela wrote on My So-Called Life about the sleeping little girl with the gingerbread house that collapses and then she wakes up. “One day I woke up, it was gone, the castle kingdom, all were lost,” Corin’s voice climbs— she’s changed, but for the better? “I know my heart is my worst enemy. Swallowed too much of it and started to believe.”
I’m trying to avoid mentioning Madonna or Courtney, but this is a pretty spiritual record. Sleater-Kinney can only find themselves by breaking down first: “It’s like goin’ to pieces could fix everything, at this point I’m really me.” That’s in “A Quarter to Three,” which ends The Hot Rock where all relationships end, waiting by the phone. When Corin comes undone, you don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. And neither does she.