One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)
By: Stan Hall
It begins, appropriately, with a solitary beat, a strenuous, deliberate combination of snare and toms. As if being individually introduced, an electric guitar appears, insistently chopping out two power chords, followed by another electric guitar spitting out a jagged, sinuous melody. Then a woman's voice surges from a seemingly bottomless well of power, thundering in song, "I'm a bullet in a soundwave--exploding like the sun." And somehow, the voice captures the image.
Sleater-Kinney's sixth album represents an opportunity for the Portland indie-punk trio of guitarist-vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer-vocalist Janet Weiss to make the leap from important, influential band to all-time great band. One thing's for sure: they won't be sneaking up on anyone this time. Since the release of "All Hands on the Bad One" is 2000, Sleater-Kinney has gained quite a bit of mainstream attention, a lot of it courtesy of old school rock critic Greil Marcus, who has championed them in a high-profile New York Times piece and last year anointed them "America's Best Band" in a Time magazine feature.
Well, if Marcus loved Sleater-Kinney in the past, he must be thumbing through his trusty thesaurus trying to think of new adjectives for his next essay, because "One Beat" is simply an astounding record. Not only is it the best thing Sleater-Kinney's ever done by a country mile-and-a-half, it's also the best rock album to come out of the Northwest since Nirvana's death rattle "In Utero." Even after upward of 25 listens, I'm still finding new textures, new angles, new aspects that excite and inspire. But longtime fans shouldn't fret; it's still the Sleater-Kinney you know and love, just better -- better songs, better arrangements, better sounds (thanks to the band's longtime producer, John Goodmanson), better performances, better everything, all of this without sacrificing a shred of the intensity and punk-rock fundamentals that have gotten them to this point.
"One Beat" greets a different world than the one into which "All Hands on the Bad One" was released. Musically, punk- and garage-inspired groups such as the Strokes, the Hives and the White Stripes have made significant inroads to breaking the stranglehold on corporate-controlled radio held by the Limp Bizkits and Creeds of the world, making it just slightly possible that Sleater-Kinney may be able to capture a wider audience this time around. And the band is just as affected by September 11 and its aftermath as Bruce Springsteen -- though in a much different way than the Boss or certainly Toby "We'll Put a Boot In Your Ass, It's the American Way" Keith. It's hard to tell whether these events are solely responsible for Sleater-Kinney's palpably renewed determination, but on "One Beat" the theme has expanded from riot grrrl and gender politics to include the state of America and the world, with two tracks, "Far Away" and "Combat Rock," serving as the album's emotional axis.
On "Far Away," Tucker presents September 11 as a sensory overload, capturing the common experience of waking up early one morning, turning on the TV and being kicked in the guts by images of death and destruction in a place that's 3,000 miles from one's living room, yet feels so close. The song is full of details, including someone calling with hysterical warnings -- "Don't leave the house--don't breathe the air today" -- and a reference to George W. Bush hiding away on Air Force One as people die by the thousands. The music is just as crucial in telling the story, with Tucker and Brownstein's guitars furiously bouncing off each other and Weiss's drums, approximating the chaos and madness of that terrible day. Finally, Tucker hollers her confusion over the state of the world: "Why can't I get along with you?"
"Combat Rock" is, to my knowledge, the first song by a major musical act expressing pointed criticism over the right wing, pro-war, culturally chauvinistic direction the United States has taken since September 11. For that alone the song is important, but the lyrics and performance, righteous, angry and grimly humorous all at once, make it more than just a knee-jerk polemic. "They tell us there are only two sides to be on; if you are on our side you're right, if not, you're wrong," Brownstein sings in a disarmingly cutesy, coy tone redolent of a teen-age pop queen. "Where is the questioning, where is the protest song? Since when is skepticism un-American?" The news media and congressional Democrats roll over in the face of the military machine, leaving it to three women in a rock band to challenge the notions of what constitutes patriotism. At nearly five minutes in length and with an inventive arrangement that allows for a Doors-y organ and some of Brownstein's best-ever riffs, "Combat Rock" is the most ambitious song Sleater-Kinney has attempted, and it delivers a powerful, inspiring payoff. It remains to be seen if it will give others the courage to speak their minds, but at least someone has fired the first shot from the other side of this previously non-existent debate.
But for all the tension and doom pervading this album, there are many moments of joy and frenzied pop bliss. "Oh!," which would be a huge hit single if the world made any sense, is nearly four minutes of hook-happy perfection, with Brownstein's perky, hiccoughing vocals drawing you in on the verse and the yowling of Tucker blowing your head off on the chorus, all punctuated by a wildly oscillating organ (courtesy of side musician par excellence Steve Fisk). "Step Aside" is, if possible, even better, with a particularly full-throated Tucker vocal and nasty fuzz bass colliding with Stax-inspired horns (yes, horns!) and fabulous girl-group harmonies by Brownstein (whose singing on this album is every bit the equal of the more celebrated Tucker) and Weiss. The good-girl heroine tale "Prisstina," featuring organ and background vocals by "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" songwriter Stephen Trask, is another highlight. And if you're a Portland indie-rocker, the crushing "Light-Rail Coyote" is your new anthem of civic pride, full of references only locals will get, not to mention a fist-pumping chant about the Willamette River on the outro. Really, all 12 tracks are worthy of praise and analysis, but for the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that the "all killer, no filler" rule easily applies here.
It all ends with one bluesy guitar and one voice, Tucker's, singing, "I know I come to you only when in need/I'm not the best believer, not the most deserving," before her band mates join in on the slow-burning groove. "Sympathy" treads the familiar ground of guilt, redemption and gratitude, the sort of near-mythic blues themes currently being re-invented indie-rock style by the White Stripes, but Tucker pulls off such a cathartic blues vocal that it nearly renders Jack White moot. It's just another astonishing aspect of a work that finds Sleater-Kinney arriving as complete, mature artists, and as the full realization of three women's artistic commitment, friendship and near-telepathic musical communication, "One Beat" is a complete triumph.