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One night last year, a friend and I traded confessions of pop-star crushes. I owned up to several fixations from my college days, some merely puzzling (Laurie Anderson), some regrettable (Natalie Merchant), some downright shaming (Suzanne Vega—yikes!). Perhaps trying to buck me up after tempting me into consideration of my lost years, Virginia asked about a singer she knew I currently carried a torch for—how about Corin Tucker? “I don’t want to date Corin Tucker,” I explained. “I want to be Corin Tucker.”
The late ’90s were a bad time for big rock vocalists. Between the sinus-gargling Vedder clones, the Zoom-boxed Reznorites, and the faux-anguished gut-spillers gumming Alanis’ jagged little pill to a pulp, it seemed as if all post-Kurt singers were writing checks their larynxes couldn’t cash. Sure, there were plenty of mouthpieces who didn’t aspire to pouring on the passion like so much butter pecan at the IHOP, but most of them barely bothered to part their lips, much less follow a tune.
From their midst emerged the lead singer of Sleater-Kinney. Tucker’s siren song was part sailor’s seduction, part air-raid warning. If Cobain could howl in tune, she could shriek on pitch—and she was louder, hotter, sharper. It was an unearthly sound, wrenching and exhilarating. It could hurl you from yourself, make you wish to be annihilated so long as you could hear it on your way out. If 1996’s Call the Doctor, the band’s sophomore album, had been released by a major, rather than by Portland indie Chainsaw, it would’ve shown up in
traffic-fatality stats. The follow-up, Dig Me Out, on Kill Rock Stars, made Sleater-Kinney a band it was impossible to be reasonable about. I still picture myself listening to those records as some sort of ridiculous anime transfiguration scene, my eyes rolled all the way back to white, an endless column of light blasting up out of my cranium.
A Third Reich dictum held that if a lie is repeated a thousand times, it becomes the truth. The opposite holds in rock. No matter how heartfelt a song is, no matter how invested its performance, you sing it enough times the same way and it’ll start to ring false. Although honesty and rawness aren’t absolute rock virtues, they are absolute for some bands. Rather than pay them lip service, mocking them in rote recapitulation, Sleater-Kinney left them behind, becoming a different band in the process.
Rawness went first. With last year’s The Hot Rock, the trio switched producers from Washington state stalwart John Goodmanson, who had handled the board on the two previous albums, to Roger Moutenot, known for Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Moutenot encouraged tendencies, latent on Dig Me Out, to resist the force of Tucker’s voice. Her vocal lines, more modulated and restrained than before, were alternated more often with those of co-frontwoman Carrie Brownstein, frequently overlapping. Husker Du had often been mentioned as a precedent, but now it was as though no one had to choose between the Grant Hart songs and the Bob Mould songs, because they were both playing at the same time. The guitars of Tucker and Brownstein switched from chattering like telegraphs to grinding like gears slightly out of true. Janet Weiss’ drumming, which had efficiently channeled the band’s energies on Dig, opened up and became more coloristic, less driving. Strings were added.
The Hot Rock’s title conceit of the authentic vs. the counterfeit, which Brownstein borrowed from an early-’70s heist flick, was rendered in photos (perhaps with a nod to Help!) as a large-stoned ring that shifted from one finger to the next. This year, honesty’s up for grabs. The gemstone thimblerig continues on the back of All Hands on the Bad One. Each band member casually hides a hand. You’ve got to guess where the ring has gone.
It’s something the band itself is puzzling over. Onstage, the post-riot grrrl group, though still electrifying, has reinvented itself as a big, polished pop act. Tucker has new confidence and eye-rolling sass, and Brownstein, a dead shot with her SG, prowls the stage with a high-kicking strut and a battery of rock-star gestures. Steady as ever on the traps, karaoke fan Weiss is now no stranger to the smooth harmony vocal. They’re having the time of their lives, and they’re bringing as many people along as they can fit on board. As new material, fan faves, and a cover of “Fortunate Son” rang from the stage of the 9:30 Club before a full house Thursday night, I got the feeling that the band could work a stadium; I’m just glad it won’t mess with that racket. But a larger club and a better PA helps. At the Black Cat, S-K always sounded smaller than life. No more.
On disc, everything’s running smoothly; despite the trademark dissonances, everything hums. Goodmanson is back, but you’ll never confuse All Hands with Doctor. A peek at the lyric sheet, however, reveals the transition to gleeful inauthenticity to be more fraught than the live show would have you believe. The single “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” may be all singsong, smart-ass finger-wagging, but when it and roughly half of the remaining songs on the record either indulge in some degree of muso navel-gazing or wring hands over the band’s self-imposed exile to a music-biz middleground, something’s amiss.
At this point, Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss have enough songs about being (and/or consorting with) musicians that their next record could be a live road opera in the tradition of Running on Empty, and they wouldn’t even have to come up with any new tunes. It might not be a bad idea. But, in the past, it was music’s function as an arena in which to work out and ultimately stake a claim to one’s own identity that made it a fresh, genuine subject for women grappling with those very issues. And when on The Hot Rock’s “End of You,” a song in the incandescent style of earlier albums that received a rousing treatment last week, Tucker, in the guise of Odysseus, no less, turns the spotlight back on the crowd, singing, “I am not the captain/I am just another fan/Sailing off the edge of truth/Into the end of you,” she gets away clean, because the music and the performance back up every word. Not so on All Hands’ “The Professional,” which refuses to accept that the band has long since relinquished its amateur status, or on “Male Model,” which acts as if the trio hadn’t rendered the whole women-in-rock line passe several years ago. Sleater-Kinney now stoops to battles it used to transcend.
Weary though I am of the pissing-contest tradition of the battle rap, I’ve got to give the form credit. “Keeping it real” may find wealthy hiphoppers refusing to cede their nostalgia for the street crime that raised them (poignant, that), but the flip side of the credibility 12-inch at least has them spinning an ode to quality. It’s a matter of pride to be better than the next guy. Across the pop pond in Indieland, however, keeping it real consists largely of not upstaging your pals. There’s something to be said for community spirit when your band is and ever shall be just as crappy as your neighbor’s, but indie ethics may actually be quashing Sleater-Kinney’s spirit.
I’m fine with the band’s staying on Kill Rock Stars, which doubtless gets a boost from Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss even if the label won’t find itself transformed to the degree Epitaph did when the Offspring came out and played. And I like the emphasis on all-ages shows; S-K is exactly the sort of thing you’d want to turn your teenage niece on to, so why shouldn’t she be able to catch it live? But when a singer who not long ago was regularly referred to as a force of nature and a band that not only outclassed all competition but trumped rock itself are reinvented, in the name of bonhomie, as the snappiest power-pop outfit in the Pacific Northwest, can we help but feel a trifle disappointed? Some things are bigger than rock ‘n’ roll fun. CP