The power of protest

Check their own material first, of course, but Sleater-Kinney has always been a band you could judge by their covers. Whether gloriously recontexualizing Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” as a ballad to the ladymen of Ladyfest Olympia, or using Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-privilege anthem “Fortunate Son” to comment on the last presidential campaign, Portland’s premier rock trio has long included other people’s songs — the B-52’s, the Clash, Jefferson Airplane, etc. — in their sets as tributes to their own political and musical roots.

Still, when they took the stage last September for a sold-out, three-night stand at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, vocalists/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate cover than Springsteen’s “Promised Land.”

Performed nearly a month to the day after the release of their sixth album, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars), the song would’ve made perfect sense even if it hadn’t been Bruce’s birthday: Like their new album’s post-Sept. 11 search for hope amid a world gone awry, the song insists a better place has to exist. And when Tucker and Brownstein interlocked voices on the chorus to announce that they “believe in a promised land,” One Beat was their proof that it was a future they were willing to help make happen.

The beauty myth

When they last played Detroit, three years ago at the Majestic Theatre, Sleater-Kinney were supporting the release of their fifth album, 2000’s grrl riot-inciting All Hands on the Bad One. Even then — before another bumbling, brain-dead Bush took office, before terrorists attacked, before another oil war on Iraq loomed large — they were looking for faith, searching for a better world.

Written and recorded in the wake of 1999’s Woodstock rapes, All Hands was a scathingly astute indictment of male notions of success and the rise of nü-metal mookery. Bombastic and in-your-face, songs like “You’re No Rock ’N’ Roll Fun,” “Ballad of a Ladyman” and “Male Model” added a rare playfulness to the band’s feminist-protest repertoire.

As thrilling and necessary as it was to hear them bull’s eyeing rock’s dog-tired boy-clique culture, however, the album — aside from the welcome addition of Weiss’ harmonizing — wasn’t the artistic step forward that each previous effort had been. But after the overwhelming successes of 1997’s Dig Me Out and 1999’s prickly, more introspective The Hot Rock left the band unsure of their future, a grrl-rock call-to-arms was exactly what they needed to re-energize themselves.

All Hands was such a reactionary record to The Hot Rock, like, ‘Let’s return to fun,’” says Brownstein. “We were almost gonna break up after The Hot Rock. We were just not a unit. Corin and I were almost writing two different songs and merging them together, singing countermelodies over every song. Listening back, it sorta mirrored how things were in the band. It was a very difficult time, so with All Hands we needed to write a record that was easy and immediate and just really about the joys of playing together.”

Things nearly came to a halt again that November when, following a tour featuring a pre-MTV White Stripes opening, Tucker announced that she was pregnant and the band would go on hiatus. And though they didn’t publicly acknowledge it at the time, the band realized the break might mark the conclusion of Sleater-Kinney.

“Because Corin was having a kid, there was a doubt that we would get back together — especially after he was born,” says Weiss, who also performs in the mope-pop duo Quasi. “It wasn’t a matter of whether we wanted to play together. It was more a matter of, ‘Is Corin gonna have time to be in a band?’ The longer we spent away from it, though, the more we wanted to get back to it.”

Brownstein concurs that time away revealed the personal importance of the band. “Corin and I were both going through a dark and strange time personally,” she says. “Just like when we wrote [1996’s] Call The Doctor, we turned to music as a way of finding our way out of the mess that we felt we were in — and the mess that we felt the world was starting to be in — and this faithlessness that seemed to start to permeate our lives.”

Hope and glory

Motivated by Sept. 11 and personal turmoil — a romantic breakup for Brownstein and the dangerously premature birth of Tucker’s son — the band began writing music again in late 2001. The resulting album, like the almost impossibly huge leap between the raw roar of Call The Doctor and the more celebratory dum-dum-ditty of Dig Me Out, sounds light years removed from the artistic water-treading of All Hands.

With longtime producer John Goodmanson at the helm, One Beat finds the trio infusing their famously no-bass rock barrage with blues, Motown soul, Zep-metal licks, and New Wave whirligigs. And with the addition of horns, strings, keyboards and even male vocals on the camped-up dress-up of “Prisstina” (courtesy of Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask), it’s easily the most ambitious of Sleater-Kinney’s albums.

“We really kinda analyzed what we were doing and had the time to sit back and see how songs could work better,” Weiss says of the four-month writing and recording process. “We had a lot of collaboration on this record — changing things, suggesting new things, trying the opposite of what we originally would’ve wanted to try.”

It’s a testament to Sleater-Kinney’s songwriting that once again they recorded such a compulsively listenable protest album that’s anything but heavy-handed and corny. Instead of taking on the sexist music industry this time, the machine that One Beat largely rages against is our government’s response to Sept. 11.

“Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?” Brownstein asks on the Clash-cribbed centerpiece, “Combat Rock.” And what the band couldn’t find elsewhere they did themselves: From “Faraway”’s disapproval of Dubya to the power-structure critiques of the title track, the album burns a hole through the flag-waving fervor and sky-high presidential approval ratings that swept America after the terrorist attacks.

Mostly, however, One Beat offers hope during a time of overwhelming faithlessness. “When violence rules the world outside and the headlines make you want to cry,” Tucker sings on the call-and-response pick-me-up “Step Aside,” “It’s not the time to just keep quiet / Speak up one time to the beat!”

Rebel waltz

Five months after One Beat’s release, Sleater-Kinney is back playing two more sold-out shows in San Francisco, a sorta second home that’s always welcomed the band with unparalleled enthusiasm.

These shows are no exceptions; the audience goes absolutely apeshit each night when the ladies take the stage. The One Beat-heavy set lists are peppered with oldies (“Be Yr Mama,” “I Wanna Be Yr Joey Ramone”), live rarities (“Dance Song ’97”) and one new number, but the most notable aspect to the performance is the inclusion of several impressive, between-song improvs — something Weiss says they plan to do more often when they open for a leg of Pearl Jam’s arena tour in April.

There’s no “Promised Land” this time, but Sleater-Kinney have dusted off their cover of “Fortunate Son.” “We’ve done this one in San Francisco before,” Brownstein says, “but it seems relevant now.” More so than ever: As our prez pushes us ever closer to the brink of war, bands like Sleater-Kinney who are willing to speak up have largely gone MIA. And as fans’ fists go up like flags when the opening riffs of “Fortunate Son” start, and young women in the front row shout along as they pogo their brains out, it reminds me of something Brownstein mentioned earlier.

“I feel there’s a sense of relief and appreciation from the crowd,” she said when asked what their fans think of One Beat’s political content. “It’s like it’s nice for them to have somebody acknowledging a sentiment of dissent or questioning that they feel, or just that there’s music out there that’s saying something.”


Sleater-Kinney performs Wednesday, Feb. 19, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit). For information, call 313-833-9700.

Jimmy Draper writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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