Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars – 1997)

In a moment of ghoulish prescience, Hole pulled ‘Rock Star’, a song which had been the intended closer to their 1994 album ‘Live Through This’ at very short notice; indeed such short notice that the album sleeves had already been printed. The album, which was released four days after the death of Hole singer’s husband Kurt Cobain, had originally been intended to close with a bitter rant against media intrusion and the startling lyrics ‘How’d you like to be in Nirvana/ So much fun to be in Nirvana/ Fucking barrel of laughs in Nirvana/ Say you’d die’. Chilling stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. The song which replaced it, which was for many years was known as ‘Rock Star’, was ‘Olympia’, another acerbic Love bite which has been perceived by some to be a slur at some of the notable graduates of the very much liberal Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. This one college inadvertently gave rise to the sometime maligned Riot Grrrl bands, such as the Love adversary Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill, and the scene which therefore produced the best all female rock and roll group of the last 20 years: Sleater-Kinney.

Formed in 1994 by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, they garnered critical support for the eponymous debut in 1995 and to a greater extent their sophomore effort ‘Call The Doctor’ the following year, but ‘Dig Me Out’ was their first classic. Joined by sometime Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, the formula of two serrated, tuned down guitars, edgily syncopated drums and vocals that went from abrasive, to recalling 50s girl groups in Sleater-Kinney’s more pop moments, was one that screamed out in the post-Britpop meltdown of what alternative radio existed in Britain in 1997. Tucker’s vocals, often a tremulous, yet melodic scream, bludgeoned their way into your consciousness and perhaps provide the most decisive point as to whether you take the band to your heart, are also are much of what make the band so thrillingly unique.

The album’s opener and title track is a study in the ragged two pronged attack sub-three minute pop that characterise the band, with the angularity of Sonic Youth captured and honed into an accessible burst. In contrast, the onomatopoeic motion of the ‘One More Hour’ which deals with jealousy and collapse of Tucker and Brownstein’s relationship, while no sordid ‘Rumours’ soul bearing, manages to be both intimate and fragile, while ‘Turn It On’ strikes at the same collapse with a chorus underpinned by handclaps sounding like a more emotionally honest Wire covering a Spector-produced girl band. But it’s songs like ‘The Drama You’ve Been Craving’ and the perhaps self-explanatory subject of ‘Words and Guitar’, where Tucker and Brownstein trade vocals and power chord flourishes at breakneck speed, are where they best flourish.

Perhaps the high point of the album is the single ‘Little Babies’ which combines a ludicrously infectious baby talk chorus matched to dissonant yet melodic hymn to clinging hopelessly to domestic bliss. For a band often on the margins, it was as insanely catchy as any pop act, yet just sufficiently discordant to stray away from being formulaic. There would be moments on their later albums, such as ‘You’re No Rock And Roll Fun’ from 2000’s ‘All Hands On The Bad One’, but rarely would they be able to nail pop perfection so well in under two and a half minutes. Of course it wasn’t all sweetness, harmonies and something for girls in hair-slides to self-consciously groove along to, as album closer ‘Jenny’ tonally evoked the slowly spiralling of desperation of Elvis Costello’s ‘I Want You’, with jealously and infidelity writ large over ratcheted-up guitar mangling.

Of their seven albums in ten years until they departed on indefinite hiatus after 2005’s ‘The Woods’, they consistently drew rave critical reviews, but never quite escaped that post-Riot Grrrl ghetto which allowed them to be conveniently pigeonholed under a feminist agenda, which while it existed, was never really overtly the point of Sleater-Kinney, even if it did dominate some of the other predominantly female bands from the Pacific Northwest. To call their musical output as ‘sexy’ could well be perceived as sexist shorthand, but only in the way that Led Zeppelin managed such urgent appeal. Few bands of that era churned out such consistently attractive rock and roll and ‘Dig Me Out’ is the perfect place to start a journey into the drama. There may have been bands capable of more spectacular headlines and disaster, but they will have the lasting musical legacy.

James Tiernan

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