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From a side project to a full-time, prolific force into an indefinite hiatus and then back around for another go at it together, the last 25 years have undoubtedly been a winding journey for Sleater-Kinney. Always led by the big-voiced and guitar-wielding combo of Corin Tucker & Carrie Brownstein and largely supported by drummer Janet Weiss, the riot grrrl-inspired band has released eight full-length albums, all of which are noteworthy.
Sleater-Kinney (pronounced SLAY-ter, not SLEET-er) got its start in 1994 in Olympia, Washington. Named after a street near the space where Tucker and Brownstein used to rehearse, S-K started as an offshoot of the duo’s respective mainstays at the time — Tucker’s Heavens to Betsy and Brownstein’s Excuse 17 — but would eventually turn into their main affair. In ’95 the band released their debut effort, and then proceeded to follow it up with another six albums before deciding to take a break in 2006. During the stretch before the hiatus, they found their longest tenured drummer, Janet Weiss, and became one of the most critically adored rock acts around.
After a number of years away, in which Brownstein played with Wild Flag and co-created (with Fred Armisen) the show Portlandia, Tucker released two solo albums and Weiss toured with Quasi, Stephen Malkmus and others, S-K rallied back together and crafted 2015’s No Cities To Love. Now, here in 2019, they’re set to release a St. Vincent-produced album, The Center Won’t Hold, the Vinyl Me, Please Essentials album for August 2019 (learn more here), and the ever-diligent band is standing on the edge of new and exciting territory.
To get a sense of how they got here, let’s take a look back at each of their LPs.
Recorded in a single night in Australia in 1994 (with drummer Lora Macfarlane) and released the following year via the queercore label Chainsaw Records, Sleater-Kinney’s debut album is a lo-fi, frenetic slap to the face. This means you won’t find anything on it that’s as nuanced as what the band would later craft, but nonetheless, it’s a kinetic and contagious 10-song, 22-minute effort. For a heavy dose of riot-grrrl rage, you can pick just about any song on the LP, but the main highlight is “A Real Man,” which features a near-berserk Tucker leading the charge — “I don't wanna join your club / I don't want your kind of love.” S-K aren’t just in attack mode here though, there are moments when they dial things back, like on the emo-leaning “The Day I Went Away.” This is not only the album’s most accessible track, but it also hints at just how attention-commanding the back and forth between Tucker and Brownstein would later become.
’96’s Call The Doctor marks a lot of things for Sleater-Kinney. By this point, Tucker’s Heavens To Betsy and Brownstein’s Excuse 17 had dissolved, so their focus was now entirely on the band. It’s also the last album they’d release via Chainsaw Records and it’s the final appearance of drummer Lora Macfarlane. Producer John Goodmanson, who would go on to work with the band on an additional four albums, enters the scene here, too. As for Call The Doctor itself, it features a finer touch and isn’t near as rage-filled as the band’s debut, but there are still plenty of emotions swirling around on it. “Good Things” is Tucker at her most vulnerable: “Why do good things never wanna stay? / Some things you lose, some things you give away.” You can also find the band’s first truly classic track, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” which takes a sharp stab at gender roles in music and ultimately establishes the band as what they still are today — the queens of rock ’n’ roll.
Enter: Janet Weiss. Now, it’s certainly likely that Tucker and Brownstein would have hit big with Dig Me Out anyhow, especially with having signed to a larger label with more resources (Kill Rock Stars) and with producer John Goodmanson back to further refine their sound (as he did on Call The Doctor), but Weiss’ stellar work behind the kit is undeniable. She carries S-K right out of the punk realm and into heavyweight rock territory, and in turn she’s a big part of why Dig Me Out serves as a breakthrough effort for the band. The album also resonates due to an abundance of heart-on-sleeve songwriting. As Brownstein mentions in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, many of the songs on the LP are about the romantic breakup between her and Tucker, so the revealing lyrics combined with the duo’s vocal interplay cut especially deep, like on the moving break up track “One More Hour.” For other S-K classics you may be craving, there’s the album’s title track, “Words & Guitars” and “Little Babies.”
Sleater-Kinney kicked the proverbial door open with Dig Me Out, and then they gently glided through it with The Hot Rock. The album, which was produced by Roger Moutenot (because of his work with Yo La Tengo), is an introspective, textured effort that’s more Go-Betweens than it is Bikini Kill, which makes it different from the band’s previous efforts in just about every way. The pivot worked though, as The Hot Rock was the first S-K album to chart (hitting 181 on the Billboard 200). Get deeply spiritual with “Get Up,” one of the band’s absolute best songs, and forever fret the Y2K crisis with “Banned From The End Of The World.” Side note, it will always be amazing that the band went from the thrashiness of their debut to the dynamic moodiness of The Hot Rock in just four years.
After the complexity of The Hot Rock, Sleater-Kinney really went about letting loose on All Hands On The Bad One. The band brought back producer John Goodmanson, who they had achieved maximum comfort with while crafting Call The Doctor and Dig Me Out, and — perhaps most importantly — they instilled a sharp sense of humor into the core of the album. The cover features Brownstein in a bunny suit being carried off a dance floor. Songs like the ultra-catchy “You’re No Rock N’ Roll Fun” pokes fun at indie snobs, “Milkshake n’ Honey” is easily S-K’s funniest track, and then there’s “The Ballad Of A Ladyman,” which is the band directly mocking anyone unable to grasp the concept of strong, outspoken women in rock ’n’ roll. For all its playfulness though, the most impressive part about All Hands On The Bad One is that it punches just as hard (see: “#1 Must Have” and “The Professional”) as the band’s earlier efforts.
Influenced by 9/11 and the birth of Tucker’s first child, One Beat makes for what is Sleater-Kinney’s heaviest album. “Far Away” details a new mother (Tucker) watching the attack unfold and questioning leadership — “And the president hides / While working men rush in / And give their lives.” Brownstein demands change on “Combat Rock” with searing lines like “Where is the questioning? / Where is the protest song? / Since when is skepticism un-American?” On a less political note, there’s the powerful album closer “Sympathy,” which details the premature birth of Tucker’s son and offers comfort for those who have lost a child. Again, this is a lyrically thick set of songs, but producer John Goodmanson lets the guitars fly and overall, it’s actually one of S-K’s catchier albums — it may also be their best.
For The Woods, Sleater-Kinney hopped from Kill Rock Stars to Sub Pop and brought in producer David Fridmann, who had done albums with the Flaming Lips, Mogwai, Mercury Rev, and more. The goal was to make something big, something classic rock-influenced and something that was vastly different from anything else the band had ever done. They succeeded. The Woods turned out to be a ferocious, distorted, mammoth album that shoved S-K onto the new ground they were aiming for. Unfortunately, the LP also arrived during a time when the band was on shaky ground due to sickness, frustration, and more, and in the end, it would be the last thing they’d release for 10 years. By the way, on the list of all-time great S-K tracks, there’s at least five that are from The Woods — “The Fox,” “What’s Mine Is Yours,” “Jumpers,” “Modern Girl,” and “Entertain.”
You’d think that returning from a lengthy hiatus would have resulted in, at best, something uneven, but Sleater-Kinney enlisted trusted producer John Goodmanson, operated at their own pace, and then turned out No Cities To Love, an effort that’s so sharp it’s hard to believe they were ever gone at all. What’s particularly wild is that it’s not only the band’s most accessible release, with infectious, hooky tracks from start to finish, but it’s also got such a slick sound that it pulled in lots of new fans while pleasing the old ones. Talk about a rare feat. Let’s face it though, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that S-K pulled off one of the best comebacks ever. After all, they’ve been achieving success in the face of adversity their whole existence, and that’s why they’re one of the greatest bands of all-time. In Sleater-Kinney we trust.
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