We feel for you. Except for some aggrieved MRAs, the culture as a whole has already deemed 2015 the year of Sleater-Kinney. The celebration of the back-from-break riot grrrl rock gods has been so thunderous that we’re sure any day Disney is going to announce they’re bumping that Star Wars movie until 2016, when the world might have the brainspace to give a damn.
This year is all about No Cities to Love, that rare band-reunited record that sounds like its band never stopped: Urgent and ferocious, scraped free of nostalgia, it finds S-K forging ahead with new sounds, new concerns, and no looking back. The only thing old-school about it: its principled, passionate greatness.
But maybe you just haven’t ever felt it. Maybe those intricate, interlocking guitar lines don’t hit you like power chords would. Maybe the band’s big-idea earnestness leaves you cold — lyrics like “Culture is what we make it/Now is the time to invent” are as removed from alt’s miserable abstractions as they are from indie’s pained coolness. Or maybe it’s Corin Tucker’s five-alarm vocals, which on songs like the glorious “Little Mouth” can make you feel you’re on the southern end of a northbound dragster.
Even the band doesn’t think you should feel bad if Tucker’s caterwaul isn’t your thing. A couple weeks back Carrie Brownstein told the Times, “The deal-breaker element of art, that’s really important to me. I like that there can be something that might be unpalatable for a lot of people. Because it makes fans that love it that much more fervent, that much more committed to it, committed to its strangeness, committed to its outsiderness.”
So maybe you, for whatever reason, feel like an outsider to these outsiders. Here’s six #1 Must Haves to invite you in.
“Ballad of a Ladyman,” from All Hands on the Bad One, 2000
Just dipping a toe in, here, with this generously tuneful lead-off track. The guitars snake and chime, the tempo’s un-explosive, and there’s some un-punk flourishes: A cello adds a layer of warmth, and Janet Weiss’s drums are a restrained tribal rumble. And the hooks! Verses that start out as straightforward stab upwards with daring, shouted peaks, the bridge is all vital questions, plainly asked, and the chorus glances against the fury and power the band’s just barely keeping in check. Then that‘s followed by some appealing ohh-wah-oohs and a killer kick-drum clap-along. But don’t be put off by the accessibility. The lyric is searching and autobiographical, asking what it means to sell out, hinting that maybe, making music this gorgeous is contrary to the band’s whole project.
Indelible lyric: “I could be demure/Like girls who are soft for/Boys who are fearful/Of getting an earful”
“One More Hour,” from Dig Me Out, 1997
Of course, a ladyman’s gotta rock, and so we have this jewel/gauntlet, another urgently personal cut boasting a surfeit of melodic ideas — and much of the fire “Ballad” kept in check. The hers-and-hers vocals are in aching, thrilling counterpoint, even as the singers rage. You might be tempted to chalk up Brownstein and Tucker’s passion, here, to the fact that the breakup they’re singing about is reportedly their own, but for S-K everything is personal, and they’re always that impassioned — you don’t need to know the gossip to feel along. The lyric details the efforts of a fallen-out couple to maintain a friendly relationship post-romance; as Tucker wails, “I needed it!” Brownstein offers repeated commiserations: “I know you need a little more time.” The tension peaks on the powerhouse coda, where Tucker makes her lone demand: “Don’t say another word/About the other girl.” The band sounds smaller, here, than on later material, but its ambitions are as huge as ever, and the emotions they’re singing about have never been more universal.
Indelible lyric: “I’ll hold you close before I leave”
“Far Away,” from One Beat, 2002
Look, if you’re going to get anywhere with this band, you have to come to terms with Tucker’s howl. The stomping “Far Away” finds her again letting loose with the raw, familiar feeling: the terror of watching the twin towers fall. There’s more detail here than in “One More Hour” — Tucker’s nursing her son when she turns on the TV to see the world aflame — and the band’s sound is newly huge, crunching and brawling, offering little of that guitar latticework that defined earlier albums like The Hot Rock, Dig Me Out, and Call the Doctor. And for all of Tucker’s purpose, here, the track’s MVP could be Weiss, whose beats suggest lumbering fear, then the country’s martial insanity, and then sky-shaking awesomeness. Also notable: the debut of the exploratory Live at Leeds–style ensemble breakdowns that would dominate The Woods a few years later.
Indelible lyric: “I look to the sky/And I ask it not to rain on my family tonight”
“Little Babies,” from Dig Me Out, 1997
Oh, shit, they can be fun? The attraction here is that chorus, of course, all those bratty and delicious dum-dum-dee-diddys, but there’s more richness and complexity in the playing than you would expect in a fleet little rocker like this: The guitars barb and tangle, and Weiss demonstrates herself — as always — as among the most expressive and inventive ever to pound the skins. Again, a coda lifts a strong song to even greater glory. Tucker, in full dragster mode, yells, “Mama’s little helper,” her power belying the sarcasm of the chorus — it’s clear even in ’97 that she may object to traditional roles of motherhood but not motherhood itself.
Indelible lyric: “Rock the little babies with one two three four”
“The Swimmer,” from All Hands on the Bad One, 2000
Hey, here’s a ballad that doesn’t just suggest “Wild Horses” covered by the Velvet Underground — it’s as good as “Wild Horses” or the Velvet Underground. The guitars stir to mind the tug and flow of the Pacific’s undertow, and the drums are as gently oceanic as Maureen Tucker’s. This is the capper to All Hands on the Bad One, the album that might be the newbie’s best place to start: It’s packed with great tunes, expansive and approachable in its songwriting, and not yet caked over in that big-rock production of One Beat and its follow-ups. Bonus points for being something all undergrads should quote from in their Kate Chopin essays.
Indelible lyric: “They will never understand/How washed up you feel on land”
“Entertain,” from The Woods, 2005
And here’s the fullest flowering of that big-rock sound, the scathing centerpiece of The Woods, their dense and heady onetime swan-song. Bombastic as an Air Force flyover, this barreling epic sounds like a punk-rock attempt to outdo “Born to Run” as the GREATEST ROCK SONG EVER™. To my ears it succeeds, utilizing all of the elements of the other songs on this list — Weiss’s mad rumble, surprise chants and codas, go-anyplace ensemble rocking, lyrics about what it’s like to fight the world with nothing but your art. And there’s one brilliant new trick: This time, it’s Brownstein who sings like a flamethrower, expectorating the words like it’s you, the listener, who is the one expecting all the wrong things from her and the band. It’s a testament to how great the band is — and how much it has grown — that this, as hard-edged and hectoring a song as they’ve ever done, sounds like the one most likely to win over the unconverted.
Indelible lyric: “You come around sounding 1972/You do nothin’ new, 1972!”
• “Step Aside”
• “Start Together”
• “The Hot Rock”
• “Burn, Don’t Freeze!”
• “Dig Me Out”
• “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”
Sleater-Kinney play New York on February 27 and 27 at Terminal 5. Both shows are sold-out but you can find tickets on the secondary market.