End of an era for rock’s fiercest feminist trio?4 min read . Updated: 31 Aug 2019, 12:00 PM IST
- Sleater-Kinney have been indie-rock’s most formidable trio of women
- Their ninth album marks a turn in their uncompromising career
In LOVE, a song from Sleater-Kinney’s new (and ninth) studio album, The Center Won’t Hold, the lyrics refer to the 25-year-old history of the three-woman band and the close friendship between its members: singers and guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss.
LOVE has inside jokes that long-time fans of Sleater-Kinney will get. Like when, in the early 1990s, Brownstein first heard Tucker sing with her former band and slipped her an address so she contact her. Or the mentions of Call The Doctor, their second record, and Dig Me Out, their third record, on which Weiss debuted and which became the band’s breakout album. There is also a mention of tuning “it down to C", which refers to the way two guitarists tune their instruments to a lower-than-normal level to get a unique sound for their interplay.
But LOVE is an ironic song. Just before the album came out in July, Weiss announced that she was quitting the band. That could mean the end of the band. Or, at least, that Sleater-Kinney won’t exist in the same form. Named after a street in Lacey, Washington state, Sleater-Kinney have been an uncompromisingly feminist band that has grown from a cult favourite in the mid-1990s to a formidably big rock group.
Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss have always practised what they preach. They have been close-knit and follow a uniquely egalitarian process of composing, recording and processing their work. They are known for their raw, spare, punk-style sound and no-holds-barred lyrics that are often angry and focused on issues that have mattered to women.
Both Tucker and Brownstein (who have had a relationship in the past) have played in early riot grrrl groups and their feminist beliefs have a long history. Their lyrics make that plain. On I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone (from 1996’s Call The Doctor), they mock the gender stereotype that has always plagued the rock music scene, which idolizes and hero-worships male stars. They sing: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/ I wanna be your Joey Ramone/ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/ Pictures of me on your bedroom door/ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/ Invite you back after the show/ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/ I’m the queen of rock and roll."
Women have always faced misogyny in the music industry. Through it all, Sleater-Kinney have held on to their values fearlessly. The Rolling Stone magazine once called them “the best American punk band ever".
In 2006, 12 years and seven albums after they were formed, Sleater-Kinney took a hiatus, each member pursuing other projects, including solo albums and ones with new bands. Brownstein collaborated with Fred Armisen to write and act in the television sketch comedy series Portlandia, set in Portland, Oregon, which ran for eight seasons. By the fall of 2014, however, the band had reunited and released a new album, their eighth, No Cities To Love. Sleater-Kinney were back.
The Center Won’t Hold marks significant changes in the band’s music. Changes that will be unmistakeable for old fans. For starters, the album is produced by the multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter St Vincent (birth name Anne Clark), whose music is known for its complex arrangements involving a wide range of instruments. On the new album, synthesizers swirl, beats are unpredictable, and even a drum machine shows up. It is probably Sleater-Kinney’s slickest, sleekest album ever.
Yet the band’s ethos is intact. The lyrics are as direct as ever, with some songs focused on the discordant trends in American politics, in particular, and the world, in general. There are also bittersweet allusions to the band’s uncertain future, given that Weiss had announced her departure before the record was completed.
Tucker (46), Brownstein (44) and Weiss (53) have careers which are already so storied that their band is recognized widely as a powerful phenomenon that helped and influenced many other all-woman bands find success in the mainstream. And although they began as a cultish indie-rock band before finding much bigger audiences, the remarkable thing is that they never sold out. The slickness of The Center Won’t Hold belies the fact that their music is as uncompromising as it has always been. Some fans have been puzzled by the induction of St Vincent (she and Brownstein have dated in the past) as producer; and some have linked Weiss’ departure to the new direction that the band’s music appears to take.
Yet the new album doesn’t disappoint. Its title could be a hat-tip to W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, written in 1919, with its apocalyptic but also hopeful theme, and the line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". The songs on the album appear to interpret the title in various dimensions—from a general perspective of trends that have emerged in society and the world; and also from a purely personal, introspective aspect that affects the band members. The title song’s nostalgia is counter-posed by The Future Is Here’s narration about digital life and alienation; and on Bad Dance, a remarkably upbeat song, the lyrics are the very antithesis of the beat: “And if the world is ending now/ Then let’s dance the bad dance/ We’ve been rehearsing our whole lives."
Sleater-Kinney’s songs are often like that. Deceptively sweet melodies camouflage raw rage and vulnerability. And although Weiss will be missed, their new avatar should be worth waiting for.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five Sleater-Kinney tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘LOVE’ from ‘The Center Won’t Hold’
2. ‘The Center Won’t Hold’ from ‘The Center Won’t Hold’
3. ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ from ‘Call The Doctor’
4. ‘Modern Girl’ from ‘Woods’
5. ‘One More Hour’ from ‘Dig Me Out’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
Twitter - @sanjoynarayan