Adam Theisen: Sleater-Kinney deserves a whole column (and a hell of a lot more)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015 - 8:30pm

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about seeing Sleater-Kinney, along with a boatload of other great musicians, in Chicago at Pitchfork Music Festival. I was only able to devote a paragraph to the band, because 2500 words for an article about a music festival is just about the limit before your editors start hopefully Googling to see if a writer can die from Carpal Tunnel, but there’s so much more to say about the importance of Sleater-Kinney.

Sleater-Kinney was born in the mid-’90s out of the dying embers of the original riot grrrl movement, a feminist punk scene created by young female artists as a platform for expressing themselves. In 1995, Olympia, Washington residents Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein recorded and released Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous first record, a short, successful work that provided the foundation for everything to come.

The band followed it up the next year with Call the Doctor, a slightly more developed punk album that features an early showcase for Corin Tucker’s inimitable voice and personal favorite of mine, “Good Things,” as well as the long-lasting mission statement of “I Wanna be Your Joey Ramone.”

“Joey Ramone” is where the band lays out in no uncertain terms exactly how it wants to be perceived and listened to. With its thrashing chorus, old school loud/quiet/loud dynamics and Corin Tucker’s order to “throw away your old records,” the song is a young female band talking about itself in the same language normally reserved only for male rock stars. It’s the beginning of Sleater-Kinney forcing itself into music history whether the patriarchy allows it or not.

With 1997's Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney added drummer Janet Weiss and officially became the band everyone still knows and loves today. Dig Me Out is a high point of its creators’ careers, melding Sleater’s early maniac punk energy with the first sparks of careful songcraft that would come in its later years. Dig Me Out has the glee of “Words and Guitar” and the determination of the title track, but it also has one of the most heart-breaking and gut-wrenching songs ever recorded. “One More Hour,” reportedly written about Brownstein and Tucker’s break-up, might be the band’s finest moment. It’s amazing that this song could be about its two lead performers separating, because Tucker’s heavier anchored guitar does the most intricate, brilliantly choreographed dance with Brownstein’s anxious, wandering notes. And when their vocals harmonize, it’s like everything in the universe besides these two opposing personalities collapses into itself, leaving nothing but hard-edged melancholy and wonder at what could’ve happened.

After Dig Me Out, the band released The Hot Rock, the closest its ever gotten to taking a deep breath; All Hands on the Bad One, its catchiest record; and One Beat, its most complex, experimental and thoughtful work yet, over the span of four years. Listening to these records, it’s hard to believe that Sleater-Kinney is actually three separate women. The group’s genius, at least from a purely musical standpoint, is how its members all appear to be connected to one brain, their instruments and voices dodging and weaving in and out of each other, supporting and counterpointing and combining into one beautiful swirling melody of intense righteousness and powerful, self-assured swagger.

Seventh album The Woods, arriving in record stores in 2005, seemed for a long time like it would be Sleater-Kinney’s final record, but even if that were the case, it would have been a fitting ending. The Woods still stands as Sleater-Kinney’s “biggest” record, with the band not so much borrowing from classic rock tropes as kidnapping them and ferociously . “The Fox” is as caught up in rock mythos as the band ever gets, “Let’s Call It Love” is a completely blown-up jam session and, of course, “Modern Girl” is every concert’s hold-up-your-lighters moment. As Jenn Pelly wrote in a lengthy Pitchfork retrospective of the band’s career, “Sleater-Kinney's first six records gave a lens through which we might imagine a feminist rewrite of classic rock; The Woods is a front-row seat.”

More developed and impressive than ever on The Woods are Corin Tucker’s full-throttle don’t-give-a-fuck vocals. Throughout every record, she consistently sings like she’s on a roller coaster, howling with rage or grief or pride or whatever’s needed to make that particular song unique. Since Carrie Brownstein’s become significantly more famous in the past few years as Fred Armison’s co-star in the sketch-comedy series “Portlandia,” Tucker has become Sleater-Kinney’s secret weapon, which is something you don’t often say about a lead singer. I have yet to find any rock singer who can even touch her vocal performances.

So Sleater-Kinney as a group left the world in 2006 and didn’t reunite until almost a decade later, coming back to a collapsed music industry but finding more fans than they’d ever had before. I saw Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss play one of the biggest shows of their lives at Pitchfork in Chicago, and while many bands would play the show as a victory lap, or as a legacy gig, Sleater was clearly focused on the future. Not only did the majority of the set come from The Woods and this year’s excellent, didn’t-miss-a-beat return LP No Cities to Love, but they just gave off the aura of rock stars in the prime of their careers, even though they’ve been doing this for two decades. I don’t know what was going through their heads while they performed, but they played like they were possessed by some spirit; I had never seen this from any other band. I’m not saying they were detached from the audience — far from it — but they were all inhabiting some incredible zone that’s only accessible when you’re on the absolute top of your game and know it. There’s no clear indication yet as to if the band will continue after this tour ends, but regardless of whether or not the musicians will continue as Sleater-Kinney, or work with their own projects, it’s obvious they’re still determined to break new creative grounds.

But Sleater-Kinney isn't only important because its music fucking rocks — it’s also important because of who exactly makes up this band. Punk groups have always made their names on challenging established norms and rebelling against the mainstream, but so many of these bands — so many entire scenes — are made up entirely of straight white men. Sleater-Kinney’s mere existence is transgressive in a culture where it feels like 90 percent of musicians in rock are men and groups that do happen to feature only women get marginalized as “girl bands.” There was such a stark contrast in the diverse crowd I saw at the front near the stage for Sleater-Kinney compared to the nearly all white male crowd that gathered for Wilco — another beloved indie band that’s been around for about 20 years — the night before. Rock won’t survive this generation if its crowds are all just dads smoking cigarettes. We need attention on bands like Sleater-Kinney if guitar music’s ever going to make it into the future.

Theisen just pre-ordered Carrie Brownstein’s upcoming memoir. To join his book club, email ajtheis@umich.edu