Starting Five: Sleater-Kinney

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More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, and writers that we love. Today we look at five essential songs from modern art-punk trio Sleater-Kinney.

Starting Five: Sleater-Kinney

by Chad Jewett

“Dig Me Out” (Dig Me Out)
“Dig Me Out” was a definitive early statement from Sleater-Kinney. Opening side one of their 1997 album of the same name (likely one of the Washington trio’s two or three best), “Dig Me Out” is our very first glimpse of how the band’s sound was both re-shaped and solidified by the addition of the brilliant Janet Weiss on the drums. The song ends up being a compact 2-and-a-half minute synecdoche for everything that makes Sleater-Kinney’s sound so singular, even as it was fine-tuned into the maximalism of 2005’s The Woods or the polished sonic perfection of 2015’s No Cities To Love. It’s all there in “Dig Me Out”: the careful balancing of discord (the song’s barbed opening riff) and tunefulness (its poignantly hushed bridges); the sheer impact of singer Corin Tucker’s forceful alto; the way the band simultaneously balances 60s garage shimmy, post-punk sharpness, and a politicized punk critique that melded the bi-coastal approaches of Riot Grrrl and Washington D.C.’s post-hardcore 90s. “Dig Me Out” isn’t just one of Sleater-Kinney’s best songs. It’s one of punk’s best songs.

“#1 Must Have” (All Hands On The Bad One)
A centerpiece of All Hands On The Bad One, the band’s fifth and most underrated album, “#1 Must Have” forwards an incisive evaluation of “girl power”, both as a real movement of liberation and equality and as a corrupt marketing ploy. Throughout, Corin Tucker offers the personal as political (another key element in so much of Sleater-Kinney’s work). At one point the song finds her “Trying to buy back a little piece of me”, a striking image of postmodern commodification, expanded on when Tucker notes the horrible irony of the liberatory power of Riot Grrrl and its influence being bought up and re-packaged by lifestyle magazines whose front images are one of the many damaging cultural pitfalls that Sleater-Kinney and their peers were critiquing in the first place: “And I think that I sometimes might have wished for something more than to be a size six / But now my inspiration rests in-between my beauty magazines and my credit card bills”. Ultimately, Tucker, Weiss, and Carrie Brownstein wipe away these magazine rack distractions all together, reasserting precisely what inspired Riot Grrrl in the first place: “The number one must have is that we are safe,” a clever re-working of the kind of consumerist language designed to target young woman, used now to remind listeners what has always been at stake.

“You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” (All Hands On The Bad One)
Ingredient number one for the brilliance of Sleater-Kinney: writing songs that inspire like protest music and play like pop music. Such is the beauty of “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun”, a single from the band’s 2000 album All Hands On The Band One. The song is ostensibly one long hook, and the band commits to its sugary major key, letting “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” stick to its power-pop core without pivoting into the more barbed, angular changes that Sleater-Kinney normally used to contrast these brighter passages. But atop all that is an especially complex narrative that makes insightful critiques about the gender norms surrounding rock music and the institutional sexism that infects even DIY punk scenes, all delivered with wry detail (“You’re no rock n’ roll fun like a party that’s over before it’s begun”) and a sing-along melody that makes the song’s defiance of rock-dude norms all the more infectious. As would always be the case with Sleater-Kinney, “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” has a gift for making progressivism look not just righteous, but also fun.

“Modern Girl” (The Woods)
Now immortalized as the source for the title of Carrie Brownstein’s essential 2015 memoir, “Moderl Girl” is a striking left-turn that remains pretty singular in the whole of Sleater-Kinney’s discography. Spare and hushed, consisting of little more than Brownstein’s conversational vocal performance, an organ, and a pair of guitars (until, of course, the song bursts open in its late-arriving finale that adds harmonica, drums, and piles of white noise), the song stands out with special contrast amongst the otherwise outsized, practically prog The Woods. But that quiet minimalism is exactly what makes “Modern Girl” so perfect – that, and Brownstein’s melody, one of the band’s best. And if the song’s folk skeleton is deceptively simple, its lyrics are agreeably puzzling in their psychedelic imagism: “My baby loves me / I’m so hungry / Hunger makes me a modern girl / Took my money and bought a doughnut / The hole’s the size of this entire world”. The language here is at once vivid and surreal, and one can read a line like “Hunger makes me a modern girl” with equal parts irony or sincerity, just as one can hear the song’s pastoral warmth as either a winking interlude from the more operatic registers of The Woods, or as another form of the sonic adventurousness that defines the LP.

“A New Wave” (No Cities To Love)
Ingredient number two for the brilliance of Sleater-Kinney: a twin-guitar attack that turns the band’s biting, no-bass approach into a sharp, wiry collage. Though the duo had been making use of contrasting, tangling leads all along (check out the cross-hatched guitar work of “Start Together” or “Turn It On” for reference), it is that push-and-pull approach to their whittled-down post-hardcore sound that defines No Cities To Love in particular, and which serves as one of the album’s signature attractions. Scaled down from the hugeness of The Woods, but maintaining that album’s sheer aural exactness, No Cities offers us the Brownstein-Tucker aesthetic in high definition, with “A New Wave” serving as the tour de force at its center. Where one guitar cycles around a bouncy four-note pattern, the other see-saws up and down with a sing-song melody that lands somewhere between a nursery rhyme and “Day Tripper”. Add to another galvanizing rallying-cry of a chorus (“No outline will ever hold us / It’s not a new wave / It’s just you and me”) and you have the latest entry in one of modern punk’s most unimpeachable catalogues.

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