Sleater-Kinney (and related acts)
Reviewed on this page:
Calculated - Excuse Seventeen - Such Friends Are Dangerous
- Sleater-Kinney - Call The Doctor -
Dig Me Out - Quasi - Introducing Cadallaca -
The Hot Rock - The Age Of Backwards - Out West -
All Hands On The Bad One - One Beat - The Woods - 1,000 Years - Wild Flag - Kill My Blues -
No Cities To Love - Live In Paris
This Olympia-based guitar/guitar/drums trio was the pre-Strokes "rock's not dead, really, I mean it" critics' fave, and they actually merited the hype.
Lead vocalist Corin Tucker's belt is simultaneously high-pitched and deep-throated, curiously like Kate Pierson, while lead guitarist/second vocalist Carrie Brownstein often added a second
unrelated vocal line, while they counterpointed their guitars similarly. Add in the creative drumming and the
fairly fast pace of the material, and you probably won't even notice there's no bass player. Everything about their music
reflects a similar economy: no side musicians or audible overdubs; two-minute songs; short snappy hooks. Inspired by the riot
grrl punk scene, the band has radical feminist politics, and sometimes dishes them out on disc, while at other times they
concentrate on allusive songs about identity, communication and relationships. If they didn't rock so hard, if they
weren't so damn musical, you could dismiss them as overly intellectual, too inclined to revel in the complexity of
their personalities. But with their determination to be themselves, to avoid being reduced to a catchphrase, and to
make powerful music while so doing, they're hard to write off. Calling Sleater-Kinney the most important band in the world soon became
a cliché, and after 2000's All Hands On The Bad One I started calling them the only important band in the world.
Then, they made a couple of disappointing (to me, that's who) follows-up, and broke up in mid-2006. In late 2010, Tucker released a solo album, while Brownstein and Janet Weiss teamed up with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole to form Wild Flag; S-K reformed and knocked out a new album in 2014, which they released and supported with a tour in early 2015.
I've reviewed shows from the 2000 and 2015 tours; I also saw them in 2003 but somehow never wrote that one up. All three members were/are part of other bands of varying quality and approaches (though nearly all eschew bass guitar), and I've reviewed most of that stuff here as well - I've reviewed Wild Flag in concert twice.
Heavens To Betsy: Corin Tucker, vocals, guitar; Tracy Sawyer, drums, bass.
Excuse 17: Carrie Brownstein, guitar, vocals; Becca Albee, guitar, vocals; C.J. Phillips, drums.
Sleater-Kinney: Corin Tucker, vocals, guitar; Carrie Brownstein, guitar, vocals; Misty Farrell, drums. Farrell left
1995 or so, replaced by Lora MacFarlane. MacFarlane left 1996, replaced by Toni Gogin (briefly) and then
Quasi: Janet Weiss, drums, etc.; Sam Coomes, keyboards, guitar, etc.
Cadallaca: Corin Tucker (aka Kissy), voice, guitar; Sarah Dougher (aka Dusty), voice, organ; sts
(aka Junior), drums.
The Spells: Carrie Brownstein, guitar, vocals; Mary Timony, guitar, vocals.
Corin Tucker Band: Corin Tucker, vocals, guitar; Seth Lorinczi, keyboards; Sara Lund, drums. Mike Clark, guitar, joined 2012.
Wild Flag: Carrie Brownstein, guitar, vocals; Mary Timony, guitar, vocals; Rebecca Cole, keyboards; Janet Weiss, drums.
Calculated (Heavens To Betsy: 1994)
Everybody needs to learn their craft somewhere. For Corin Tucker, it was this lo-fi two-woman garage band (Tucker overdubbed a second guitar,
and Tracy Sawyer played drums and bass). The faster numbers are pure punk, while others have soft-loud-soft structures echoing (eek!) Nirvana.
Tucker's lead vocals are visceral, the tunes have some cathartic power ("Terrorist"), and even the ones with long running times
sustain themselves with unusual structure ("Complicated"). Often, though, the gentler songs (the quietly determined "Decide") are more successful
than the abrasive ones ("Waitress Hell"). Frequently the lyrics leave a lot to be desired: most of the record is about Tucker coming to terms
with her whiteness, which is an admirably weighty subject for an LP, but she repeats herself endlessly (the word "privilege"
appears in at least five or six tunes), and doesn't really get beyond generalities (sample lyric: "I'll never change anything/If
I don't change my racist self."). And the instrumental ("Intermission 247") is an ordeal. Note: I believe this is the only band Tucker, Brownstein or Weiss have been in that used bass guitar. (DBW)
Excuse Seventeen (Excuse Seventeen: 1994)
Hate to say it, but Carrie Brownstein's first band was pretty goddamn boring. "Singer" Becca Albee uses a flat, depressed
monotone thoughout the album, while Brownstein just plays droning chords, without any of the arresting lead lines she would
later use, and screams off-mike from time to time. There are a few moments of rock and roll fun (the closing "Break And Enter" - the only
place they indulge themselves with dynamics changes, the raging "Imaginary Friend" with two simultaneous lead vocals),
and some clever lyrics ("We're The Seniors (And We Rule The School)"). But on the whole it's ugly, annoying, and worst of all, dull.
Such Friends Are Dangerous (Excuse 17: 1995)
Yes, they changed the spelling of the band name. The sound is a bit cleaner, and the mood is far more energetic - angry rather than
depressed - but it still tends to be tuneless ("Getoff"), and Albee's monotone is still flat. Brownstein was developing as a guitarist,
though, and her garage-style simplicity stands her in good stead on fast tunes like "Watchmaker," while her love of surf-rock surfaces on
"Special Guest, Me." The lyrics are more pointed than before,
occasionally touching on political concerns ("This Is Not Your Wedding Song"), but too often they're just unilluminating,
unstructured rants ("I'd Rather Eat Glass"). Resident dude CJ plays guitar and sings "Decatur H.S.," the prototypical rambling "Hey, I'm in
the band, let me sing one song, please?" number. If you're already an S-K fan you'll probably enjoy the sonic similarities, but don't start
On Sleater-Kinney's first record together, they were trying to be another Bikini Kill, with screeching
vocals, sludgy distorted guitar riffs, and profanity-laden feminist rage ("How To Play Dead"). Three things I love, but not here:
Tucker's voice is too thin for sustained yelling, the lyrics are scattershot ("The Day I Went Away"), and the lo-fi sound
detracts from the group's strong points - delicate melody lines and open spaces. Plus, Tucker sings "I don't wanna" on so
many different tunes it starts to sound like a mantra. MacFarlane gets one shot at the mike, the incomprehensible "Lora's
Song," while Brownstein sings lead on several, though there's none of the co-lead back and forth vocals that appear on
later albums. The aptly titled "Slow Song" is the album's standout track, tuneful and moving, pointing the way to the
successes of the later post-punk approach. With a twenty-two minute run time and only a few really good tunes,
this is a marginal buy unless you're a mega-fan.
Call The Doctor (1996)
A big leap forward, as the lyrics are much more focused and fun (title track, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone"), the guitar
interplay is fascinating ("Taste Test"), and the band has hit on its patented approach to choruses, where Brownstein will sing double-time
while Tucker sing-songs a slower harmony vocal (with unrelated lyrics) ("Stay Where You Are"). Also, the recording is
far cleaner: engineer/producer John Goodmanson gets a politely distorted, spare sound that's more garage than punk or grunge,
so you can hear a lot more subtlety in the instrumental tracks. Woman-positive themes are often present - "Taking Me Home" is
about the rockin'est feminist anthem I've ever heard, and "Little Mouth" is wrenching - but they avoid sloganeering by
acknowledging confusion and contradiction. More importantly, the band crashes through every number with drumming that
kicks you out of your chair, and riffs that make you pick up your guitar and play along. Which, if you only play guitar
sitting in your chair, can be a problem. (DBW)
Dig Me Out (1997)
I think this was their commercial breakthrough (helped by a label jump from Chainsaw Records to Kill Rock Stars), but it's a
step back: too many songs have obvious surf-rock hooks ("Words And Guitar") while lyrically, they've exchanged the Riot Grrrl
feminism for allusive alienated love songs ("Heart Factory," "The Drama You've Been Craving"), which to my mind was no
improvement. Still, the record's catchy (title track, "Little Babies," "Buy Her Candy") and enjoyably fast-paced (most
songs are just over two minutes long); new drummer Janet Weiss is crisp and steady, though not yet as interesting as
MacFarlane had been. There's not much variety, though "Dance Song '97" throws in an organ and the closing "Jenny"
uses ringing reverb in a reach for ominosity, but it all goes by so fast you won't get bored. Again produced by
Quasi (Quasi: 1998)
Weiss's band with ex-husband Sam Coomes, who wrote nearly all the songs, sang nearly all the leads, and played most of the instruments
(mostly keyboards - including a frightening amount of overamplified electric piano - and some guitar). He tends to construct expansive,
stately melodies with grandiose arrangements that run on as instrumentals for a few minutes before he starts singing arch, twisted lyrics
of detached despair ("Ape Self Prevails In Me Still," the love song "It's Hard To Turn Me On"). Like lo-fi prog rock with irony ("Our
Happiness Is Guaranteed"), or maybe a garage Todd Rundgren. While the lyrics are often clever ("California") and the tunes are usually interesting
("I Never Want To See You Again"), the sameness of the approach is deadening after a while. Also, he loses goodwill for prolonging the
one-joke "Repetition" for nearly six minutes, and for including a track of chirping birds ("Birds"). Anyway, Coomes' personality drives
the record, so don't expect any similarity to Sleater-Kinney. Still, Weiss's drumming is sensitive and varied, she adds sweet harmony
vocals to a number of tracks, and she did write the confessional "Tomorrow You'll Hide." (DBW)
Introducing Cadallaca (Cadallaca: 1998)
Lead singer Corin Tucker's other project is a lighthearted take on early 60s pop, with a surf guitar/cheesy organ/drums lineup, cornball aliases
(hers is "Kissy") and liner notes invoking Jackie DeShannon and Dusty Springfield. You can interpret it as a lark, or as a indie grrl
commentary on/reclaiming of bygone female pop icons: "O Chenilla" clearly recalls Blondie, for example. Either
way, the tunes are memorable ("You're My Only One" really sounds like it should have been an early 60s hit), Tucker's vocals are smoother
than usual ("Pocket Games"), and there's none of S-K's distracting seriousness. Junior's drumming is steady but constantly shifting ("Night Vandals")
and Tucker's trebly guitar spews forth some tasty riffs, though the organ gets on my nerves after a while.
The Hot Rock (1999)
Hey, this ain't no punk band! They got pretty intertwining guitar lines, and pretty intertwining vocal lines,
and stuff. But they still rock: they sound like a prettier (musically speaking, that is) version of the early Police. An across-the-board improvement over the previous release:
the riffs don't sound as familiar, Weiss's drumming is far more subtle and inventive, and they get lots of mileage out of
their point-counterpoint co-lead vocal style. It
works magic on tunes like "One Song For You," "Hot Rock," and especially "Burn, Don't Freeze," maybe the best
rock song of the year. The down side is, many of the lyrics are vague and/or obvious: "God Is A Number" is more sophomoric
alienation, "Start Together" is another confused plea for love, "A Quarter To Three" sounds like scraps from five different
songs thrown together. Produced by Roger Moutenot. (DBW)
The Age Of Backwards (The Spells: 1999)
The Spells are Brownstein and Mary Timony (formerly of Helium), both on electric guitar and vocals, with occasional rudimentary drumming.
This 8-minute, four-song EP is more of the same melodic interplay as The Hot Rock, but far mellower: it's music for 2 AM after
the guests have gone home, with suitably cosmic lyrics (title track). Though it's short, I didn't feel ripped off until I heard the
pointless cover of the Who's "Can't Explain" - it's basically Townsend's arrangement without the bass or drums,
how droll. The next year, The Spells cut four tracks for a follow-up LP that wasn't finished; Brownstein later leaked them - "Champion Vampire" is well worth seeking out. (DBW)
Out West (Cadallaca: 2000)
A four-song EP, and though Cadallaca kept the same jokey guitar/organ/drums instrumentation, Tucker's vocals and lyrics have shifted into darker
territory ("The Trouble With Public Places"), losing the first record's enjoyable triviality. The lyrics are difficult:
the title track tells a depressing story I can't quite figure out (sample lyric: "God gave up on me today").
But the record's so catchy you keep listening ("Fake Karaoke Machine"), and eventually a vulnerable charm shows through, as on
the sort-of-confessional "Scarface." I don't know whether I'd want to listen to a whole LP of this stuff or not, so for once the
EP length is just right. Produced by Cadallaca and Larry Crane, who engineered. (DBW)
All Hands On The Bad One (2000)
The band's masterpiece, combining the high energy rawk and feminist fervor of Call The Doctor ("The Ballad Of A
Ladyman," "Was It A Lie?") with devastatingly elegant arrangements. There's a new emphasis on sing-along choruses
(title track) though their patented dueling-lead vocals are still in evidence ("Male Model"). The lyrics are more
straightforward, with unforced humor (the single "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun," the gender-crossing kissoff "Milkshake
n' Honey," complete with a neo-psychedelic fade), though they're still difficult to understand at times ("Ironclad"). Plus,
somehow, they come up with a midtempo meditation on regret and loss that's absolutely breathtaking ("Leave You Behind").
Brownstein and Tucker continue to find interesting new things on guitar, without being self-consciously experimental ("#1 Must Have"),
while Weiss holds her own with inventive, continually shifting drum patterns. With their exhilarating sense of freedom,
playfulness, effortless melodicism, and crisp musicianship, they're like the early Beatles with a
message. Produced by Goodmanson; everything's played by the trio except for infrequent keyboard touches added by Sarah
Dougher and Sam Coomes. (DBW)
One Beat (2002)
Not bad, exactly, but a big dropoff from the band's four previous discs.
There's a heavier, fuller sound - more keyboards and even some strings and horns - but melody went out the window, with twisting guitar lines
replaced by single notes endlessly repeated,
and the result is a conventional, tuneless indie rock sound ("The Remainder," the ode to Portland "Light Rail Coyote").
A few songs with actual riffs benefit from the production - "Oh!" with a light keyboard line; "Far Away" with a grinding distorted riff - but the rest just sounds overloud and confused (title track),
and Weiss's drumming is often overwhelmed ("Step Aside"). Tucker's voice sounds as good as ever, but
the humor's gone, and for a change the lyrics are overly simple: the anti-War On Terrorism "Combat Rock"; the "boys drool" anthem "Prisstina"; the high-speed anti-love song "O2."
Produced by Goodmanson, engineered by Crane; a bonus disc has two decent, quieter tracks: "Off With Your Head" and "Lions And Tigers."
The Woods (2005)
After a lengthy association with Kill Rock Stars, the band moved to Sub Pop. Like One Beat, the emphasis is on single-note thudding rather than riffs, and
there's no melodic countersinging, but this time the production is simpler (no horns or credited keyboards) and the songs are longer ("Let's Call It Love" dissolves into an endless space jam). Doesn't sound like an improvement, does it? Well, they do turn up the amps sometimes, sounding closer to their Riot Grrl roots than they have since Call The Doctor ("The Fox"), and Weiss's drumming is as driving as ever ("Steep Air"). And there are two fine tunes: "Jumpers" - alternately chilly and fiery - and "Entertain," a clever challenge to all the retro acts currently clogging the airwaves.
Generally, though, the lyrics look back to the same vague romantic territory of Hot Rock
("Rollercoaster"), with the occasional anti-consumerist sentiment (the gentle "Modern Girl," with Weiss on harmonica).
Produced and recorded by Dave Fridmann; the disc comes with a bonus DVD containing live performances of four tunes.
1,000 Years (The Corin Tucker Band: 2010)
Is Tucker the indie Sting? Bear with me here: starts a killer band, early punk-influenced records attract attention, later records are even better received thanks to mainstream elements, breaks up band at height of popularity, then puts out solo album that loses touch with initial fire in search of broader, more mature sound. Plus, the drummer was the best musician in the band despite getting the least attention. Anyway, I don't hate Sting but I don't buy his solo records either, and CTB's debut brings up the same reaction. A few songs do have some of the old energy ("Doubt") and her gift for melody is occasionally evident ("Half A World Away"; the similarly titled voice-and-piano number "Miles Away"), but there's not much to sink your teeth into ("Thrift Store Coats," a sentimental "poverty sucks" tune). Seth Lorinczi adds keyboards, and Sara Lund (singularly clunky on the title track) is on drums - neither one impresses.
Wild Flag (Wild Flag: 2011)
I think we all knew that sooner or later, Carrie Brownstein would grow tired of blogging for NPR and being low-key in indie films, and would get back to rock and roll. Likewise, it's no surprise she's working with Weiss and Timony again, and that there's no bass player. But there are a couple of elements you might not expect: With support from keyboardist Rebecca Cole (formerly of The Minders, of whom I'm ignorant), both Brownstein and Timony reach way back to a 60s garage sound, with psychedelic influences ("Glass Tambourine") and an unusual amount of jamming for an indie band ("Racehorse").
There are some great economical songs, mostly from Brownstein ("Future Crimes"; "Short Version"), the guitar interplay is often ear-catching, and Weiss is always worth hearing.
Enjoyable as it is, the record is a bit slight, for three reasons: the lyrics lack heft, the snappiness of the enterprise gives the lesser numbers a cookie-cutter quality ("Endless Talk"), and neither of the leaders has much vocal punch: the band's harmonies are pretty ("Something Came Over Me"), but when the songs call for a passionate delivery, Tucker's absence is sorely felt. On the other hand, S-K didn't find its way right off the bat either, so I'm not rushing to judgment.
Kill My Blues (Corin Tucker Band: 2012)
Okay, I'm sorry I compared Tucker to Sting. After getting the oversedated 1,000 Years out of her system, she's still with Lorinczi and Lund (plus former Stephen Malkmus sideman Mike Clark) but the Sleater-Kinney/Heavens To Betsy intensity is back ("Groundhog Day," a raucous rejection of the slow pace of change) - except on a couple of retro pop numbers like "Constance," where the Cadallaca intensity is back. Tucker's got half of a great album (title track), but the second half drags...
I know I shouldn't compare everything to S-K, but it's hard not to picture Brownstein trimming "Summer Jams," Weiss turbocharging "Tiptoe" and both of them giving the assembly-line "None Like You" the thumbs-down.
Still, no one else can invest simple melodic hooks with such urgency: Tucker's conviction that a song like "Neskowin" can change the world is so strong it makes you think, why the hell not?
No Cities To Love (2015)
One of the great things about staying alive is that occasionally stuff like this happens.
Though they surely knew expectations for a comeback were sky-high, they show no signs of being under pressure either to recapture past glories or to break the mold - they still sound like a garage band inviting you to check out this cool song they just wrote ("Price Tag"). And their confidence is well placed, as their power-pop melodic sensibility ("Bury Our Friends") and razor-sharp presentation ("A New Wave") are undimmed.
The Woods-era Crazy Horse-y jamming pops up on "Fade," and in a moderate dose it's a lot of fun; there's almost none of the contrasting simultaneous lead vocals. Instead, there's a spot-on Talking Heads impression ("Fangless") - if they'd had a better drummer and singer - while the lyrics of "Hey Darling" are hurled like Dylan at his most vituperous.
Some of the songs are underwhelming, though: "Gimme Love" and the title track are functional but lacking anything in the melody, arrangement or lyrics department to set them apart.
There are a couple of vinyl-only bonus tracks, "Heavy When I Need It" and "The Fog And Filthy Air."
Live In Paris (2017)
Apart from the welcome (albeit scansion-defying) substitution of Kim Gordon for Thurston Moore in "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," no surprises. Which is both good and, y'know, not so good. (DBW)
Words and More Words.