We are into the 90s now, in my Band of the Month cavalcade - this month, partly because they have a new record out, it's Sleater-Kinney.
I was listening to rock again in the late 90s, quite a bit - catching up on older bands, looking for new bands - and picked up The Hot Rock for some reason. Probably something in the Phoenix, that made them sound very interesting - whatever the reason, I found that I liked it. They didn't quite sound like they were described - I was led to expect something noisier - then I got Dig Me Out, and realized that was what people were talking about. And so for a couple years in there, they were one of the contemporary bands that defined the age. Which isn't that far off.
For a while, at the end of the 90s, they were so good. I liked The Hot Rock - it was fascinating, full of good songs, maybe a little out of character from their earlier records, less frenetic, prettier. It also featured their most sustained sustained and systematic use of the double lead vocals, Brownstein and Tucker singing different lyrics in harmony. It's really lovely, and it set me up to expect more of the same. That isn't quite what you get - the earlier records are a good deal rawer, spikier, punkier, angular, noisy and tuneful - and just about as good as anything in the last 20 years. Call the Doctor is harsh and smart and very abrasive - Dig Me Out smooths things a bit, brings it under control, but doers it without losing the energy - really, the better focus makes the energy even more effective. That record is about as good as it gets: Carrie Brownstein, particularly, came into her own, finding that perfect, jagged, surf guitar sound she mastered - she's sharp and precise across the whole record, with a fantastic sound. Their signature tangle was there on the first two records, but really clarifies on Dig Me Out. Then The Hot Rock - which does take a lot of the edge off, but replaces it with a more intricate sound - the intertwined guitars and vocals, and not just vocals, lyrics - those three records together are as good a run as anyone has had in the era. Inventive, surprising, with a unique and powerful sound, that evolves from record to record, without losing what they do right. They wer on top of the world.
You could extend it to All Hands on the Bad One - but somehow, to me anyway, that didn't quite make it. Great songs still - neat guitar work, harmonies, everything you could ask. But it was less overwhelming, somehow, less exciting - less urgent, maybe. I don't know - I certainly listened to it enough when it came out, with great pleasure. Still do - some of the songs anyway - but I don't find that it surprises me anymore, and no matter how many times I've listened to the other three, they keep surprising me. It was not a big drop, or change - All Hands on ther Bad One didn't trigger a crisis of faith the way, oh, The Joshua Tree did - but it made me wonder.... And then, I started to change - so that by the time One Beat came out I was eye deep in prog rock, krautrock, Japanese noise - Sleater Kinney is a long way away from Can or The Boredoms or Acid Mother's Temple or The Soft Machine or Guru Guru - or Mars Volta for that matter. When One Beat came out, it didn't overwhelm me, and I sort of let it pass - didn't listen to it all that much, and didn't go back to it. (And I discovered when I started writing this, that I hadn't even loaded it into the computer - strange indeed! Looking back now - listening to it now - I think I made a serious mistake there. I don't know if it's as good as their best, but it sounds better than I remember it - interesting ideas, different tones and styles, some rhythmic variety that they usually didn't bother with. I think I missed the boat on that one.) By the time the Woods came out, though, I was back where I could appreciate them - deep in the throes of Post-punk (real and neo-post pounk: Gang of Four and the Pop Group; Liars and Bloc Party). Add the fact that The Woods was produced by Dave Fridman (whose band will get their month on this blog soon enough) - I expected to love it - I didn't. Again - it's okay - but they really don't translate well to the bigger guitar sounds on that record, the attempts at jamming - as if they were trying to appeal to that 2002 version of me by pretending to be the Mars Volta. It bugged me - Brownstein, in particular, had reached a point (I thought) where she was a genuinely outstanding guitarist, though in a particular style; trying to play solos and feedback like that just didn't work - I go back to U2 - it's like the Edge trying to be Hendrix on Bullet the Blue Sky - he can't do it; and you end up with something that's not as good as Hendrix and not as good as the Edge. Same here - she's not Omar Rodriguez, or even Ben Chasny - and now, she's not Carrie Brownstein either.
And so we get to the new record - plenty of anticipation there but - comeback records can be scary things. And this? Okay - but nothing more. Except for A New Wave - that measures up to their best - driving, great sound, their cool, lovely harmonies, smart words - it's totally addictive. It's like those songs on All Hands on the Bad On - tuneful, more rock than punk, infinitely hummable, and great sounding. Unfortunately, it's the only song on the record that really gets my attention. The rest - I dunno; what can you do? They seem flattened out - trying to fit their style to something more, I don't know, conventional or something. It puts me in mind of one of those late 80s Pere Ubu records - Cloudland or Story of My Life - though without the tunes, or the musicianship, or David Thomas. Which still - I mean - my opinion of Pere Ubu is no secret - saying they remind me of second rate Ubu is still pretty good. But at their best - they were first rate Sleater-Kinney.
Well, this hasn't gone quite the way it should. We are here to praise and all that. They aren't the only band I've loved that have slipped over the years - U2 and REM and The Replacements and Husker Du are all in that boat... if they stay at it, they are quite capable of returning to the heights, or finding a new height. And if not - well - they were, for a while, just about the best band in the world. And that is worth something. It's worth a hell of a lot, really.
1. The Drama You've Been Craving
2. You're No Rock and Roll Fun - and not just for stealing a Smokey Robinson riff...
3. Little Babies
4. Stay Where You Are
5. Hot Rock
6. Call the Doctor
7. A New Wave
8. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
10. Little Mouth
1996 live set, black and white, songs from Call the Doctor:
Good things and Little Mouth, in 1998:
And the Drama You've Been Craving, live in 1997:
Jenny, live - Carrie sounding perfectly majestic on this:
Hot Rock - though it could use better sound. The songs on that record, I imagine need better sound - you have to pick out the two voice and the two guitars... I wish they had done more of what they did there, having Carrie and Corinne sing separate lyrics, in harmony - their voices blend very well anyway, and using them this way, running separate sets of lyrics playing off each other, gave them so much room to expand on what a song could be... It's like someone trying to work out what a real, crafted, pop version of the Murder Mystery would sound like, and absolutely nailing it. I wish they did this more often.
Light Rail Coyote - I never quite gave One Beat the attention it deserved; I think that was a mistake. This is a very good song- it's better than the next two records, anyway.
A New Wave on Letterman - a nifty performance of a really good song - though I admit I'm distracted by the look. Corinne Tucker has turned into Belinda Carlisle, and Carrie Brownstein appears to be a mash up of Pete Townsend and PJ Harvey. Mixing Pete Townsend and PJ Harvey may indeed be the coolest thing on this or any other planet (Polly Jean and Pete themselves excepted), and Carrie makes a pretty fair bid to be just that: