Between the grungey angst of the first half of the 1990s and the polished pop and packaged aggro of the latter half, Sleater-Kinney’s arrival in the middle of the 90s almost starts to make sense. Listeners could trace their jagged guitar riffs and Janet Weiss’s hyperkinetic drumming from post-punk luminaries like Fugazi and Black Flag. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s dueling vocals had precedent in riot-grrl stalwarts like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. What was tough to pin down for critics and even fans was how Sleater-Kinney had taken these dissonant elements of underground punk music and forged such tenacious hooks with them. There are few moments on their records where Sleater-Kinney play identifiable pop music. Still, listeners have discovered in droves how S-K’s criss-crossing guitar lines and vocals bury themselves in your memory. Sleater-Kinney has created a sound entirely their own which polished dissonant punk into a sharp, unforgettable package.
Over the years, S-K has moved their sound forwards – 1999’s The Hot Rock tempered 1997’s Dig Me Out’s anger; 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One found their pop instincts in higher profile; and last year’s One Beat returned lyrically to angst and anger while the music branched out even further – but the band has never changed their principles. Despite major-label offers, they have remained on Olympia, Washington’s Kill Rock Stars. This spring, though, Sleater-Kinney dip their toes in the corporate water as the opening act on a leg of Pearl Jam’s tour.
“The way that we usually tour is small venues and really devoted fans; so this is really the opposite of that for us,” says singer/guitarist Corin Tucker. “It will be a challenge and an opportunity both.” Asked about heading out on the road with the band who took on Ticketmaster, Tucker responds, “They’ve got a hugely devoted fanbase. So, it is daunting… but I think we’re excited for it.”
Having played together for almost ten years, Sleater-Kinney are certainly comfortable onstage. Like their records, they see the experience as an opportunity to change and push themselves. Corin explains, “I think that changing things up is good… writing songs different ways, jamming. We’ve been jamming a lot.” After touring their last record, Corin felt a need to be less extroverted onstage and more a part of the music. “I think it’s important to sometimes reflect on what people are experiencing and just step outside yourself a bit. And I think we did that with this record.”
Which brings us to One Beat, Sleater-Kinney’s widely heralded sixth record released last August. “Far Away” relives September 11, 2001 in simple but chilling lyrics. “Oh!” explores pop verses and catchy refrains augmented with synthesizers. “Step Aside” features a hypnotic syncopated guitar and adds horns to Sleater-Kinney’s palette. “This being our sixth record, we wanted to do as much as we could basing it on our same format, but really branching off as much as we could to remain vital as a band,” Tucker explains.
One hears in S-K’s albums a real attention to the album as a whole, as a snapshot of a period of time. “I think that’s what great albums are,” Tucker affirms. “They capture not only your own life but maybe a little bit of what life is like at that certain time.” Just as Sleater-Kinney themselves managed to forge a new voice in between the slovenly underground and manicured mainstream during the waning 1990s, so does One Beat find a place in between joy and confusion, anger and complacency, frustration and contentedness. It is another reason that Sleater-Kinney will continue to remain a vital force and one of the few opening acts that could really give a headliner a run for their money.
[This piece originally appeared in the Rage.]