The Neglected Canon #4
by Billy Brooks
Sleater Kinney, in their last two or three albums, have moved away from the angst-driven Riot Grrrl anthems of the band’s youth, and assimilated the setting and imagery of the domicile and the family into their songwriting. In Price Tag, the opener to their most recent album, No Cities to Love, Corin Tucker sings about “scrambled eggs / for little legs”. However, although Corin has settled down, vitriolic social criticism has never been left far from reaching distance. In their 2005 album, SK’s The Woods, feminism takes centre stage (as it does on many, if not all of their albums predating The Woods; check them out). Plugs for Sleater Kinney’s albums both recently and in the past out of the way, I’ll move on to the 2005 masterpiece from the girl trio whose writing and performance chops leave many bands cowering in their sizeable shadow.
The album bursts into life with a squall of feedback, followed by a highly charged dynamically Pixies-esque no nonsense rock track about a sycophantic fox luring a duckling into its open jaws with honeyed words. The metaphor is aptly placed to warn off any listeners ill equipped for the fuzz heavy, riff laden 50 minutes that follow. Once the opening barrage of straight up rock and roll stompers are out of the way, the ladies get down to some more serious business.
Modern Girl is perhaps the album’s number one standout track. Carrie Brownstein – writing genius behind Portlandia as well as SK and her own beautiful autobiography – gave a memorable musical platform to the bittersweet notion that despite all its incredible accomplishments, the feminist movement is far from done.
“Angry makes me a modern girl
I took my money
I couldn’t buy nothing!
I’m sick of this brave new world”
The title of Carrie’s autobiography, Hungry Makes Me a Modern Girl, is taken from the second verse of this song. The vicious beauty of the lyrics is compounded by the contribution of a mouth organ part by Janet, the percussionist. What’s more, the faltering rhythm and pace of the piece, achieved by masterful use of time manipulation, is subtle enough that it remains tasteful.
Another highlight of the album for me is track eight of ten, Rollercoaster. The first half is centred on an out-there set of kitchen images – picking out and cooking a “red cherry tomato” at a market, representing a sexual fling. Kitchen imagery is a recurrent theme in the recent SK discography, with Woods track What’s Mine is Yours featuring the line, “Someone’s in the kitchen / Cooking hearts up at the stove”. Rollercoaster moves out of the kitchen for the second half of the song and onto a fairground, using the all-too clichéd image of the rollercoaster ride, with the lines “You’re sick on me / I’m sick on you / Rollercoaster, can we go back to the way things were?” highlighting the frustration often felt as a relationship enters its death rattles. The two distinct sections are sung by Corin and Carrie respectively in a mish-mash of images and moods which go together surprisingly well. The combination of two very contrasting sections also characterises Jumpers, a Brownstein ballad penned as an ode to the many who have taken their own lives jumping from San Francisco’s “spine of engineering”, the Golden Gate Bridge, among the most popular spots in the world for suicides. The lyric is beautiful, loaded with a plethora of fun images, creative rhyme schemes, and even a nod to Wordsworth, because why the hell not, I guess. The recognisable simile of “lonely as a cloud” is transplanted from the blissful solitude of the English countryside in Daffodils, to the crushing loneliness of the golden state in a violent inversion of the pastoral mode.
While this album is abrasive and arresting in its beginning, features a fun girdle about its middle (Rollercoaster and its surrounding numbers), one of my favourite moments on the album is the finale, as the ten minute jam Let’s Call it Love, segues into Night Light. The freeform nature of the former song was a new structural gamble for the band, not that one could tell from the expert execution, which results in a colossal odyssey of noise and an exposition of Carrie’s criminally underrated guitar playing. The closer, Night Light, takes a blues style lyrical format, and uses it to capture the loneliness, defiance, and heartache that characterised the rest of the album.