All Hands on the Bad-ass Ones

The personal and public appeal of Sleater-Kinney

With origins firmly rooted in the Pacific Northwest's outspokenly activist riot grrrl movement, bassless trio Sleater-Kinney has always weighted its abrasive-yet-catchy indie-pop with substantial ideas and opinions. From themes of personal empowerment to bigger-picture issues like social injustice and government-as-corporation, they've consistently embodied the philosophy that somebody with a microphone has a certain responsibility to sing something besides "hey, she left me so let's party 'cause I love you.' And they've done so with wit and charm, in a singularly appealing, non-preachy way.Call it ironic, predestined or coincidental, but now guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein, guitarist/vocalist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss are playing some of the biggest shows of their collective career — in arenas and amphitheaters, supporting Pearl Jam — against the backdrop of this nation's most heavily contested global action since the generation-defining war in Vietnam.

"It's really unnerving. It feels very weird, and sort of surreal right now," says Tucker. "It's always a question of you wondering if you can somehow combine your activism with your musicianship. I hope to talk to the Pearl Jam people, and see if we can have some information out there, ways to e-mail your Congressman, something."

While the group's latest album, One Beat (their fourth for politically and socially progressive label Kill Rock Stars), was recorded before the current Middle East crisis came to a head, several of its songs deal directly and otherwise with both the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and its effect on the national psyche — the tension, the side-taking, the escalation of nationalist jingoism and pressure to recite Republican America's company line. Tunes like "Far Away" and "Combat Rock" react to the tragedy and, hearing them today, a year after the sessions that yielded One Beat, seem ominously to predict the headlines of recent weeks.

"I think that the content of the music is just what we're passionate about, whatever that happens to be at the time. And unfortunately, because of what's happening in America right now, with the move to the right and now the war, I just don't see how we could not write about that," Tucker says. "I mean, come on, the Dixie Chicks are protesting!"

But One Beat isn't all uncertainty and cynicism. Like all of Sleater-Kinney's discs, the album deftly balances its worldview with less controversial subject matter, vignettes and poesy, all set to angular guitars and uplifting, ass-shaking rhythms. Musically, One Beat evinces what's apparently becoming another yin-yang pattern the band is becoming comfortable with — a satisfyingly equal allotment of experimentalism and well-crafted singalong hooks.

"I think that's important. We definitely have strengths in songwriting that you can just write a good pop song, and that's a good talent to have," asserts Tucker. "I don't think you want to alienate people with your experimentation, I think you want to keep them interested."

Previous Sleater-Kinney albums fucked with this same formula to wildly varying degrees. The Hot Rock was a little more out there, and All Hands on the Bad One was a little more comfortably pop, but One Beat's easy combination of the band's two sides is focused, intriguing and infectious.

"I wouldn't want to be in an experimental band. What is it, free jazz or something," says Tucker with a laugh. "I'm traditional in a lot of ways, I think, in terms of liking part A and part B of the song. I think our fans really like to sing along too. So hopefully we can try new and different things, and balance it out and still have people joining in."

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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