Deeper & Better: Reaccessing Sleater-Kinney's Material Girls
For around a decade starting in 1995 or 1996, the best rock band in America was an all-female trio out of the indie-rock hothouse of Olympia, Wash.'s Evergreen College. And now, around a decade after they went on hiatus in the wake of 2005's heavy-roiling The Woods, Sleater-Kinney are back. At first the Sub Pop box set Start Together, officially released today with its first pressing of 3,000 long sold out, looked like a profit-taking retrospective. But over the weekend it emerged that the box's only new music, a one-sided white-vinyl single marked "1/20/15," presages the new Sleater-Kinney album many feared would never come. Jan. 20, 2015, is a Tuesday.
Sleater-Kinney's co-frontwomen, who were also lovers when they first recorded together, are singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. The eponymous 10-song debut CD the pair recorded overnight in Australia in 1994 was one of riot grrrl's finest moments. Their 1996 Call the Doctor was a postpunk benchmark. Their band got even better when power drummer Janet Weiss joined for 1997's Dig Me Out only because Weiss's chops are as world-class as Tucker and Brownstein's chemistry and vision.
Since Sleater-Kinney recorded two CDs for Chainsaw and four for Kill Rock Stars before moving on up to Sub Pop for The Woods, it's no surprise that their stature isn't adequately reflected in sales numbers. The SoundScan total for their seven-album run in history's final record boom is just 583,000. But nobody got more plaudits than Sleater-Kinney. So in 2001, Time magazine granted the band's critical superfan Greil Marcus a bully pulpit to explain why they were, as I was saying, the best rock band in America. They had devotees in profusion. Few of the relatively few who bought their albums were casuals.
Fans who couldn't tell how much Sleater-Kinney loved punk were quickly set right when Brownstein alternately confided and shrieked Call the Doctor's "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone." But Sleater-Kinney never sounded very Ramones-y except in song lengths that clocked in under three minutes half the time. They always found tunes -- great pop is impossible without them. But early on they demolished the minimalist formalism and clean propulsion of classic punk -- they were rock as in rawk. Allotting what bass feel there was to Tucker's guitar, they were always tumultuous -- a storm of longing, fury, aspiration, solidarity, and indomitable emotion whose early focus on sexual politics broadened into relationship songs that maintained their feminist edge because the frontwomen thought and felt so subtly, and remained so stubbornly who they were. Their guitars battled and meshed in a bravura model of cooperative competition, and Brownstein was a clear, clever singer. But their sound was dominated by Tucker's loud, vivid vibrato.
Compared to most great bands, Sleater-Kinney make lousy background music. Usually, receding into the background is a function of groove, and Weiss isn't a groove drummer. She's a beat and noise drummer -- a pure rock drummer devoid of swing or funk and not all that interested in simple punk timekeeping. And insofar as withdrawing discreetly out of the listener's consciousness reflects something conversational in the vocal, Tucker doesn't cooperate. Even as she married a man and had her first kid, she lost none of her will to challenge rock's male chauvinism. She dominated because it was her cultural mission to stay in our faces, revving her sizable soprano into that signature vibrato.
So where guy bands smugly cashed in their patrimony, Sleater-Kinney foraged into unclaimed territory and shared that thrill with musical seekers of every sexual identity. And where unbelievers found Tucker's power warble irritating, I dug it because I dug what it signified. But "listenable" is not a word that leaps to mind in this connection. And sadly, as their hiatus set in, I pretty much stopped listening to Sleater-Kinney. This happens as artists disappear into history, of course -- there's always more good music than time to hear it. And that's the gift of where we come back to the Start Together, a second pressing of which should be available in stores before Christmas.
Although I've long scoffed at box sets for duping fans into overpaying for marginalia, the end of the CD boom has undercut some of that disdain. "Dupe" doesn't seem the right verb when consumers know what they're getting into and record companies no longer lord it over the marketplace. Streaming has its upside -- as artists disappear into history, who would gainsay a curious kid the chance to check out a genius with a click or three? But there's no doubt in my mind that the simultaneous dematerialization and availability streaming represents has the general effect of rendering music less real and less precious for most listeners, especially young ones.
This is why I've long admired Sub Pop's m.o. Almost all Sub Pop CDs are packaged in cardboard double-folds half an inch taller than competing product; almost all feature informative booklets; all protect discs with a distinctive white-tiled inner sleeve; all are set apart by art direction that sometimes messes with the pattern just described. In short, all are objects designed to be owned as objects. All rematerialize music.
Never prone to missing trends, Sub Pop was also on the vinyl resurgence early. With vintage Sleater-Kinney vinyl now rare, the box's seven colored-vinyl albums are a major reason it sold so quickly, although the black vinyl albums of the second edition can be ordered singly. It's to Sub Pop's credit that the label isn't forcing vinyl fetishists to plunk down $125 for the box, which also includes a big, charming snapshot album that Sub Pop A&R veep Tony Kiewel told me was almost as big a job for him as quality-testing the audio. Yet since I'm no audiophile, I was surprised to find that what moved me most about this project was the sound.
Start Together wasn't remixed -- that would have been sacrilege. But the Chainsaw recordings needed toning up, and only The Woods sounded as good as the band thought it should. So the catalog was remastered by Sterling Sound veteran Greg Calbi, and I duly sat down to A-B-C it, old CD to new CD to vinyl. Calbi says he found unexpected low resonances he could beef up to intensify the aggressiveness in a digital iteration of the master tapes, and thenceforth worked to foreground bass so as to beef up "the aggressiveness and power of the band overall." Worried about this tampering, I found it suitably subtle when I listened -- they'd been powerful and aggressive to begin with, and Calbi's revision stayed within that range. But I noticed a side effect Calbi hadn't mentioned -- without surrendering any of it's own aggression, Tucker's power warble was markedly more, well, listenable. Less screechy.
The vinyl version was nice, too -- "warmer," as vinyl fetishists like to say. But the CD had a clarity and force I personally liked even better. "Edge" has become so prized a thing in music that to say Sleater-Kinney's old CDs have lost edge sounds like a reservation. It isn't -- that edge made them harder to hear. So as I write I'm playing the remaster of 2002's post-9/11, post-motherhood One Beat CD twice as loud as I usually play music in my office, on speakers. The song is the anti-Bush Combat Rock. Brownstein is upping the Brit factor in her cuter, poppier voice; longer on power than warble in this song, Corin is holding forth with the kind of impassioned certitude that makes some men uncomfortable. I know as I listen that post-hiatus Brownstein, always my favorite, will join Fred Armisen as the unpinnable chameleon of IFC's sketch-comedy Portlandia and join Weiss in Merge's excellent all-femme alt-rock venture Wild Flag; I know that as leader of the mixed-gender Corin Tucker Band, Tucker the matron and filmmaker's wife will squeeze in two soulful, thoughtful, unabrasive Kill Rock Stars albums that I'm in the minority for preferring slightly to Wild Flag's one-off. But I'm so happy to reaccess them in precisely this form.
No Cities to Love, the new album will be released Jan. 21, 2015. Bet it sounds great.