049 Sleater Kinney

Tomorrow Sleater-Kinney return to Melbourne for the first time in just over a decade. Given the fact that the last three posts that I have published have focussed somewhat heavily on Sleater-Kinney, some of the more astute readers amongst you may probably have some inkling that I have a certain fondness for the band. Over the past couple of weeks, partly in preparation for seeing the band live again, but mostly because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’m likely to do anyway, I have immersed myself again into the band’s back catalogue. Out of this retrospective I have put together a list of ten Sleater-Kinney songs that falls somewhere between my favourite ten songs of theirs and the ones that I’d most like to hear them play live this week (however unrealistic that may be in a couple of cases). Either way, hopefully it’s a pretty decent overview of the band’s career and a good starting point for anyone new to their music.

Jumpers (2005)

If anyone was to ask me (or even if they weren’t, because I appear to be writing this anyway) what the greatest song ever written was, without hesitation I would say “Jumpers”. Sure it’s a song about suicide inspired by a New Yorker article, but there’s something surprisingly life affirming about the song as a whole. I think a large part of the appeal of “Jumpers” for me is that it contains flawless examples of everything that makes Sleater-Kinney’s music so great and unique.

Lyrically, “Jumpers” is quite astonishing, the sense of place and despair are perfectly drawn through concise imagery and references… I mean the only way to top “Lonely as a cloud/In the Golden State” as a description of loneliness and isolation in San Francisco would be to follow it with the Mark Twain quote about that city “The coldest winter that I ever saw/Was the summer that I spent”, which of course they do. However, I think the finest moment lyrically in this, or probably any song is “The sky is blue most every day/The Lemons grow like tumors/They are tiny suns infused with sour”, it’s a verse which evokes so much. The listener is first struck by the power of the vivid colours, the blue of the sky and bright yellows of the lemons and the sun(s), which is then brutally undercut by the pessimism of the narrator who associates the bright skies and healthy fruit with tumors and sourness.

As the narrator stands on the Golden Gate bridge and contemplates suicide they define the location by its beauty and status (“There is a bridge adored and famed/The golden spine of engineering”), while they describe their emotional weight as a burden to even the bridge (“Whose back is heavy with my weight”). From the midpoint of the song the narrator prepares for the jump, with a sense of finality (“Drink your last drink/Sin your last sin… Sing your last song”), before visualising the suicide in the future tense (“My falling shape will draw a line/Between the blue of sea and sky/I’m not a bird, I’m not a plane”). The song ends with the four seconds that it takes from the jump until death stressed and repeated four times as “Four seconds was the longest wait”, before being abruptly cut off.

The music of “Jumpers” perfectly captures the confusion and emotion of the narrator. The song is structured around twelve separate and distinct parts, which strikingly change in tone and mood and increase in urgency as the song draws to its inevitable conclusion. “Jumpers” opens with a driving riff as Corin and Carrie harmonise on the opening verses before thirty seconds later Janet’s drums brutally crash in to signify the first change in tempo as Corin’s voice soars above a more urgent rhythm with the line “Lonely as a cloud”. After thirty seconds, the tempo changes back to the opening riff with Corin and Carrie sharing the vocals, before returning again to Corin’s vocal. This pattern is then broken by fifteen second bursts alternating between increasingly frantic riffs and short, pleading verses from Carrie. Until there is a relaxed, almost calming guitar break for another fifteen seconds, which transitions into Corin and Carrie gently harmonising over the description of the suicide, which over thirty seconds builds and builds to a jarring end where the last line is unfinished and the final chord is held for fifteen seconds.

While breaking the song down with a stopwatch feels a bit academic, I do spend way too much time thinking about and listening to this song. The frequent changes in tempo, in combination with the alternation of the vocals leaves “Jumpers” sublimely off-kilter, which is perfect given the subject matter of the song. I’m sure that I have failed to do this song justice, so it’s best that you just listen to it yourself and note that further to my attachment to “Jumpers”, the significance of this song to the band is also highlighted in Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, where playing “Jumpers” as a band in rehearsal is referenced as the pivotal moment at both the end (“When I finished the song, Corin and I were both crying. It’s when and how I said my own good-bye”) and the rebirth of the band (“This time it was not about death, it was about being alive”).

One More Hour (1997)

There are a lot of great break up songs, but only a handful come close to matching the sheer emotional charge of “One More Hour”. Written in the wake of the breakdown of Corin and Carrie’s romantic relationship, the song literally gives voice to both parties as Corin and Carrie sing different lyrics with alternate perspectives of the breakup over one another in the chorus, with Corin’s repeated “I need it” answered with “I know, I know, I know its so hard for you to let it go… I know its so hard for you to say goodbye/I know you need a little more time”. The influence of Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! has been one of the more obvious touchstones for the music of Sleater-Kinney and it has rarely been more apparent than on this track (with the possible exception of “Fangless”). Aside from lyrics with conflicting viewpoints being sung over one another, the angular riff and song structure of “One More Hour” owes much to this album, but applies the Leeds band’s ferocious energy to the personal rather than the political. Surprisingly, although the song was co-written by Corin and Carrie, Carrie provided the riff, while Corin wrote the lyrics which Carrie later confessed she had no idea they were about her (“Who is ‘Jenny’? Who is the person with the ‘darkest eyes’ in “One More Hour”? Certainly not me”).

Far Away (2002)

To this day, this is the only song that I have heard about 9/11 that captures the shock, fear and anger of the day. It is a ferocious assault from the opening riff and probably Corin’s greatest vocal performance (with the possible exception of my fading memory of the live performance of “Fortunate Son” I saw in 2002). The song starts as the day did for most, at home or at work, finding out about the first attack through others (“7:30 a.m./Nurse the baby on the couch/Then the phone rings/Turn on the TV/Watch the world explode in flames/And don’t leave the house”). As the next attack occurs, the shock and fear spreads throughout the country and the world (“And the sky overhead/Is silent, waiting/Clear blue holds its breath/And the heart is hit/In a city far away/But it feels so close”).

Musically, the opening of “Far Away”, particularly Janet’s precise drumming, feels almost militaristic, before the fear in the lyrics builds to a chaotic chorus as Corin wails “Why can’t I get along?” over Carrie singing “No other direction for this to go and we fall down, and we fall down”. The paranoia and genuine fear of the time is perfectly captured with “Don’t breathe, the air today”, as well as the priority for the safety of loved ones “I look to the sky/And ask it not to rain/On my family tonight”. Most importantly, “Far Away” calls out the Bush administration’s handling of the attacks in a way that was seemingly still off limits years after this song was released (“And the president hides/While working men rush in/And give their lives”).

Price Tag (2015)

The opening track of Sleater-Kinney’s first album for ten years made it obvious that the spark that Sleater-Kinney regularly made into a wall of fire was still there. Everything that was great and unique to the band was turned up to eleven on “Price Tag”: An arresting opening riff from Corin is joined a few seconds later by Janet’s crashing drums and a contrasting riff from Carrie, while Corin and Carrie’s guitars are in conversation with each other, we hear the full range of Corin’s remarkable voice, until a change in tempo gives us a doom laden riff (reminiscent of The Breeders’ “Safari”) and Carrie stridently singing a bridge, which turns into a conversation as Corin sings the chorus over Carrie singing the bridge. On about the tenth or eleventh listen, the lyrics reveal themselves to be not only a commentary on the post-GFC stresses of ordinary families, but also the corporate machine of the music industry and the battle between art and commerce. Awesome.

Modern Girl (2005)

The first time I heard The Woods, “Modern Girl” absolutely floored me. The song is an anomaly in Sleater-Kinney’s catalogue anyway, but in the middle of the band’s Zeppelin inspired riff-fest The Woods it was positively shocking. “Modern Girl” opens over Corin and Carrie quietly playing a subdued bluesy riff and Carrie’s solo vocal (“My baby loves me I’m so happy/Happy makes me a modern girl”), the song slowly builds as Carrie is joined by Janet on harmonica (!) on the second verse, before the drums crash in and Corin finally joins Carrie’s increasingly irate vocals at the end. The song is an ironic take on happiness and consumerism, as the narrator “Took my money” to buy a TV which “brings me closer to the world”, but each subsequent purchase leaves her more empty, like the donut whose “hole’s the size of this entire world”, until finally she “couldn’t buy nothin'”. As the song progresses, the narrator repeatedly describes the continued illusion of a perfect life, from “My whole life/Was like a picture of a sunny day”, to “Looked like a picture of a sunny day” until finally it “is like a picture of a sunny day”, stressing that it was never more than a facsimile of happiness. A frustration emphasised at the moment Janet’s drums enter the song and Carrie’s vocals gain venom with the perfect and perverse line “My baby loves me, I’m so angry/Anger makes me a modern girl”… The Woods then segued into the enormous crashing drums that open “Entertain” and I was left wondering what the hell had just happened, but I knew that whatever it was, it was great.

Step Aside (2002)

If for no other reason, “Step Aside” deserves to be on this list for the absolute tour de force vocal performance from Corin. On the surface “Step Aside” is a party song, borrowing surprisingly heavily from 60s soul, complete with “na na na na na na na” vocals, lines like “Janet, Carrie can you feel it?” and even featuring a brass section. However, the pure joy on the surface of “Step Aside” and calls to “get your feet on the floor” contrasts with the weariness of the early verses (“When I feel worn out when I feel beaten/Like a used up shoe or a cake half-eaten… This mama works till her back is sore”), which then turns to frustration and anger and finally into a rallying cry for action (“When violence rules the world outside/And the headlines make me want to cry/It’s not the time to just keep quiet”). I think the perfect summary of all of these contradictions and the song itself is in the line “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?”.

Call The Doctor (1996)

The title track to Sleater-Kinney’s second album is a statement of intent. A concise punk influenced rock song, “Call The Doctor” is quite possibly ground zero for Sleater-Kinney’s sound. A lot of what they would build on over the next two decades can be heard here: The frequent changes in tempo, that gives the impression of three or four songs perfectly combined, Corin’s towering vocals in the chorus and lyrics critical of conformity (“They want to socialize you/They want to purify you/They want to dignify, analyze and terrorize you”) in what is, who knows, maybe a love song. It is also notably the first song where Carrie and Corin sing different lyrics over one another creating an extraordinary tension in the sound with Corin’s “I’m your monster I’m not like you” contrasting Carrie’s “Peel back the skin, see what’s there”. By the next album Dig Me Out, the extraordinary Janet Weiss joined Sleater-Kinney making the final piece of the puzzle, but “Call The Doctor” was a great sign of things to come.

You’re No Rock And Roll Fun (2000)

This song is a hell of a lot of fun. Along with “A New Wave”, this is one of Sleater-Kinney’s catchiest songs and about as close as you’ll come to hearing a pop song out of the band. “You’re No Rock And Roll Fun” was written in the wake of the bro idiocy of Woodstock 1999 and mocks self important male rock stars (“Your head’s always up in the clouds/Writing your songs/Won’t you ever come down?”) who are too big to “hang out with the girl band”, even though “the girl band” really couldn’t care less (“When the evening ends/We won’t be thinking of you then/Even if your song/Is playing on the jukebox”). I feel that I should note that every time I listen to “You’re No Rock And Roll Fun”, I am left in absolute awe of Janet’s powerful drumming, which somehow drives the song in a way that dominates the sound without drawing any attention to itself.

Get Up (1999)

Carrie Brownstein’s memoir describes the time around the recording of The Hot Rock as being particularly difficult with terrible disunity in the band. The record to some degree reflects this, lacking the cohesion and power of the albums directly before and after… It did, however, provide several classic tracks like “God Is A Number”, “Start Together”, “Burn, Don’t Freeze!” and “Get Up”. Of these tracks I went with “Get Up” for this list, a song which doesn’t just give a tip of the hat to the influence of Sonic Youth in general and Kim Gordon in particular, but revels in it. It’s hard to listen to the softly spoken delivery of “Good-bye small hands, good-bye small heart/Good-bye small head/My soul is climbing tree trunks/And swinging from every branch” and not hear Kim Gordon’s vocals on “Tunic (Song For Karen)”. Like much of The Hot Rock, “Get Up” is more subdued in tone and delivery than you’ll find across the bulk of Sleater-Kinney’s back catalogue, but it’s also a damn fine song.

Surface Envy (2014)

“Surface Envy” was the second song that Sleater-Kinney released following the announcement of No Cities To Love and it provided serious reassurance that Sleater-Kinney were not only a band that still had something to say, but one who were completely able to kick ass. “Surface Envy” tears along with Corin’s riff jarringly contrasted by Carrie’s, accompanied by possibly the strongest vocal performance by Corin on the album (which is saying something). A song which unashamedly celebrates Sleater-Kinney, it had the perfect line for apparently every music critic in the world to pick up on (“We win, we lose/Only together do we make the rules”), although the line immediately preceding it seems to speak more deeply about the unity in the band and what they want to achieve (“I feel so much stronger now that you’re here/We’ve got so much to do, let me make that clear”). Did I mention that it kicks ass?