All Hands on the Bad One

(Kill Rock Stars)

If you listen really closely to the silence right before the first track of Sleater-Kinney’s latest, All Hands on the Bad One, you can hear the sound of hundreds of rock critics doing what they do best: beating off. Three years after the Olympia threesome caught their ears with Dig Me Out, the brain trusts behind the country’s major music publications are still shuffling through their thesauruses to find new ways to outgush each other–and themselves.

In February 1999, when Sleater-Kinney delivered Dig Me Out’s follow-up, The Hot Rock, Entertainment Weekly asked, “Is Sleater-Kinney the greatest rock & roll band in America?” A few months later, revered blowhard Greil Marcus answered with a review of The Hot Rock for Esquire called “The Best Band in the World,” in which he crowed that the band was on the same plane of importance as Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, and Nirvana. In greater and lesser publications around the country, this sort of hyperbole flowed like cheap beer on prom night–and for an album that wasn’t even in the same league as Dig Me Out. Too bad–they should’ve saved it for All Hands on the Bad One, which in some ways is the band’s best record yet.

With their debut EP, Sleater-Kinney, and their first LP, Call the Doctor, Sleater-Kinney had already established themselves as major players in the northwestern punk scene when Dig Me Out was released. But Dig Me Out blew them up bigger than that world. It fleshed out ideas only hinted at on Call the Doctor. The band used its quirky lineup–drums, two guitars, no bass–to the fullest, pitting lines of equal weight against each other to create a complex, layered dynamic that retained the energy of the riot-girl movement. That interplay was mirrored in the vocals of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein: Tucker’s soaring, operatic voice seemed like a tough one to counter, but Brownstein’s sing-scream-speak did the trick, and the two used this counterpoint technique to accent themes in the lyrics. Solidifying their syncopated interplay this time around was a better drummer, Janet Weiss.

It was intoxicating, and the critics wanted desperately for it to be the next big something–a concept they could grasp. “[Tucker’s] voice is enormous, with a natural swing–the sort of swing that neither Tina Turner nor Mick Jagger ever had, the ability to take a note and ring it like a bell in a tower,” Marcus wrote in the Esquire piece. But no matter how many bloated rock ‘n’ rollers Marcus and his ilk compared them to, Sleater-Kinney weren’t the next anything. They seemed mostly to want to keep on being themselves. This moderate ambition became evident in the two years before the release of The Hot Rock, when they saw their star rise higher than almost any independent band’s before them–and saw the darker side of stardom as their personal lives were poked and prodded by the press. (In 1997 Spin revealed, against the band’s wishes, that Tucker and Brownstein had had a brief romantic relationship at one point; the gossip was repeated in article after article.) The media attention brought major labels a-calling with suitcases of money in tow. But the band decided to stay on the Olympia indie Kill Rock Stars–a choice Jagger or Turner, who’ve been gouging fans with higher and higher ticket prices in recent years, would certainly never make.

As it turned out, The Hot Rock couldn’t cash the check Dig Me Out had written, but the critics overlooked its flaws, if only to save face–proclaiming the second coming is a hard position to retreat from. The Hot Rock wasn’t a bad album, but it didn’t advance any of the ideas the previous album had set forth. It was as if Sleater-Kinney, while publicly claiming that they didn’t care what the critics thought, had gotten nervous in the studio and decided to play it safe.

On All Hands on the Bad One, that trepidation is gone, replaced by a confidence only hinted at on Dig Me Out. The arrangements are fleshed out, precise as well as passionate. Tucker and Brownstein’s vocal style has grown even more nuanced, still based on the point-counterpoint dynamic but also incorporating harmonies and backups. Weiss’s drumming is better integrated into the band’s sound. All Hands on the Bad One is a mature album for Sleater-Kinney–and I don’t mean “mature” in the way I would if I said the latest Sting shitfest is more “mature” than Outlandos d’Amour. I mean it’s an album about knowing who you are and, more important, what you want.

“I could be demure / Like girls who are soft for / Boys who are fearful of / Getting an earful / But I gotta rock!” sings Tucker on the lead track, “The Ballad of a Ladyman.” These are the kind of lines that set hearts thumping in the first place–gender-specific rock talk, a la Dig Me Out’s “Words and Guitar,” where Tucker sang “I wanna turn turn you on / I play it all I play it all / I play it words + guitar.” But “Ladyman” ends with Tucker pointedly asking, “How many times will you decide / How many lives will you define / How much control should we give up of our lives,” while Brownstein sings under her, “You sit at home with an alibi / In case they call and ask you why all you do is go ‘ooh ahh ooh.'” Better critiques of the biz are hard to find–especially ones that segue perfectly into a poppy “ooh ahh ooh” chorus with hand claps.

Of course, with maturity a person–or a band–tends to lose some youthful rage, and that’s certainly true here, with an emphasis on “youthful.” Sleater-Kinney has traded some raw power for focused anger. Take “#1 Must-Have,” a tune that takes on not only the rock establishment (“I’ve been crawling up so long on your stairway to heaven / And now I no longer believe that I wanna get in”) but also makes a scathing retort to the quick and merciless commercial exploitation of the riot-girl movement. “They took our ideas to their marketing stars / And now I’m spending all my days at / Trying to buy back a little piece of me,” Tucker spits.

Both The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One can be read as responses to media attention, but the new one deals with the glare by staring straight back into it. “Was It a Lie,” ostensibly about a woman hit by a train, twists the gruesome tale into a condemnation of sensationalism: “A woman’s pain never private, always seen / I want to close my eyes / I want to cut the wires / I want a day not made for you to see.” And where Dig Me Out closed with “Jenny,” a tearful but straightforward ode to a lost lover, All Hands on the Bad One wraps up with “The Swimmer,” in which Tucker takes just 14 lines of efficient poetry to convey what it’s like to suffer personal loss while living in the public eye. “I can hardly see you now / Are you getting closer and / Do you know you’re the one? / They will never understand / How washed up you feel on land / The spotlight of the sun, it shines on.”

In the Village Voice, shortly after All Hands on the Bad One came out, Marcus’s colleague Robert Christgau did it again, writing, “Locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967,” then goes on to complain that the band has fallen back on “the media-studies cliches [musicians] fall back into when they get hung up on the meaning of their careers….I prefer these songs as songs when they adduce the musicians’ separate lives rather than their collective mission.” What he and his peers continue to fail to recognize is that for a band like Sleater-Kinney there’s a very fine line between the two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marina Chavez.