The personal is political. The political is personal. Sleater-Kinney makes the connection better than any band I can think of -- and they have never done it more strongly than on the excellent One Beat
The album retains the trademark layered sound of earlier work, the dueling guitars, the wailing vocals, the powerfully musical drumming, yet it plunges into much darker territory than before. All Hands on the Bad One made political statements about gender roles and consumerism, but never asked the deeper questions at the heart of One Beat. Here, two tracks deal explicitly with 9/11. One touches on domestic violence. Two stare down the death of someone close. Add a baby -- Corin Tucker had a son last year -- and some sexual themes, and you're pretty much got the whole spectrum of human experience. That's a lot to chew off, but there is not a false moment in the whole album.
Take the 9/11 songs, a La Brea tar pit for less ruthlessly honest writers and performers. On "Faraway", Sleater-Kinney captures, with eerie realism, the experience of getting the telephone call, turning on the TV and being immobilized by grief. The guitars pour out dumbfounded dirges. The drums rock with disbelief. The keening descanting vocals echo, talking over, not to, each other. The lyrics are specific and personal -- a baby on the couch, the 7:30 a.m. feeding -- and all the more universal for that. It is unblinkingly brave and nuanced, but it is not the end of the story. Later in the album, "Combat Rock" looks at the fallout from 9/11, in blind patriotism and quashed dissent. The lock-stepped sing-song base of this song is nearly claustrophobic, alleviated only by Tucker's anguished, questioning vocal.
The title track is more poetic and oblique, but continues to gnaw at the roots of global instability. Flirting with chaos theory and nuclear physics, the song stutters forward on top of a stop-and-start cadence, the machine-gun drum-bursts and yelping lead vocals smoothed by a calm swell of "ahhs". It is classic SK sound, as direct and immediate as anything on Dig Me Out.
Sleater-Kinney often slips in one subversive party song that sounds a lot simpler and more upbeat than it is. On this album, the rock and roll fun slot goes to "Prisstina", the spacy, theremin-enhanced tale of a good girl gone bad, sort of. Sleater-Kinney punctures the tires of this well-worn genre, lets the sexist air out and rides off into the bumpy night. When Prisstina takes the glasses off and lets her hair down, it's to start going to rock clubs, not to win the leading man.
There are other fun cuts on One Beat. S-K have one of the best "ohs" in the business and put it center stage in the irresistible song of the same name.
I understand why the band is leading with "Oh" and "One Beat". They're not simple songs, but they're easy to grasp at one level and unfold later on subsequent listens. Still, my favorite track on the album is the closer, "Sympathy". Tucker's voice is distilled pain, sounding more like Bessie Smith than a rock star, spilling into the crevices of the song like running water. It emerges into a pounding landscape of spoken-sung chorus and straight-on drumming, triumphant "heys" and chugging rhythms that suddenly stop and leave you hanging. Some songs start in the abyss and drag you gradually into the light. This is one of them.
Speaking of dragging, Sleater-Kinney was one of the bands that brought me kicking and screaming back into rock music in the mid-1990s. I had had a baby and had basically decided that the fun part of my life, including loud music, was over. I was wrong, and I knew it the minute I heard Sleater-Kinney. There was something about the way that Corin's quivering wail released the tension of the boxed-in rhythms, the supple dialog between questing guitars, the lyrics that hinted at unvarnished female experience that rescued me from musical brain death and brought me back into the fold. Now, six years later, it is immensely heartening that these three women are still pushing the boundaries and still refusing to accept the middle ground.
One Beat puts the big questions on the table, wrestles with them wholeheartedly and rocks like a maelstrom. What more could you want?