It’s Enough: Sleater-Kinney
swelling, then a release. This is how most art works. For Sleater-Kinney, however, songs were, first and always, an exercise in rhetorical strategy tested in performance—tumultuous and violent, without early Sonic Youth’s exploitive malevolence—by young women who recognized no limitations except perhaps their own exhaustion.
I was relieved a few seconds after learning that Sleater-Kinney had broken up. You can't destroy energy: it's dispersed or reconcentrated. It's obvious that the sustenance singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss drew from one another could no longer compensate for the effects wrought by the world outside the recording studio and concert stage. Marriage, childbirth, a presidential administration the women hated with every breath—you try avoiding them. Their songs couldn't contain these forces anymore, much less reshape them in patterns acceptable to intelligences as exacting as theirs.
There were hints—if you wanted to look for them. The lapidary, cosmetic embellishments of 2005's The Woods showed Sleater-Kinney as artists far from dotage, but still uneasy in middle age. Who knew, though: the distortion and effects pedals gave them a tumescent swagger that indie boy bands could only emulate by stuffing socks in their underwear. The worst song was a jeremiad aimed at Top 40-loving fans. The sweetest song was about Tucker's baby. The most discomfiting was about suicide. What was on Janet, Corin, and Carrie's minds I will not speculate; but these subjects adduced a confusion beside which the explosion of Call the Doctor’s “Little Mouth”—hair, sweat, saliva, blood if you looked close enough—seemed juvenile if not irrelevant. Their lives had outpaced their songs.
The essence of Sleater-Kinney’s sound was its lack of bass—hardly an innovation, not when Brownstein used The B-52’s Ricky Wilson as a model for retuning her guitar. But consider what it denotes: a band that did not acknowledge this most basic of rhythm instruments reveling in the destructive elements they unleashed and could barely harness. Dig Me Out is one of the few records to actually make me sick; I wanted to throw up after my first listen. Inchoate, shrill, relentless, female, it turned my bowels, and I needed to adjust. They should have broken up after 1999’s The Hot Rock, in which Tucker and Brownstein achieved a nauseous parity: they traded vocals and guitar lines and finished each other sentences, dividing and dissolving as they reenacted their psychodrama for the audience. A lot of people think it’s their worst album (the honor goes to All Hands on the Bad One, whose inept role-playing proved why they weren’t ready for anything besides indie stardom). Like a John Cassavettes film it exerts a voyeuristic fascination that may or may not have anything to do with whether it’s any good.
That’s what makes Sleater-Kinney a queasy listening experience: the audience projected its own psychodramas onto the band’s hyperactive rhythms. Insofar as we could, that is. There comes a time, as Sleater-Kinney learned, when we need to sort these things out by ourselves.