20 years ago today: sleater-kinney, dig me out

Life-changing moments are often recognized only after the fact. The closest I ever came to a real life-changer was back in the winter of ‘72, when I realized in my heart that life could be summarized by Sisyphus as Camus described him in his famous essay. I whipped quickly from laughter to tears and back again, as I made a connection to that man pushing that rock for eternity. I try not to dismiss these kinds of moments in others (usually a religious awakening) because I had the same thing happen to me.

I think by the end of our first Bruce Springsteen concert in 1975 that we knew something had changed. It’s more obvious in retrospect, after 40+ years of concerts and albums and road trips, but there was something special enough about that first show that we came back for more. And more and more.

I did not know, on April 8, 1997, that Dig Me Out, the new album by Sleater-Kinney, would affect me in a similar fashion. Until that point I’d been aware of the band without giving myself over to them. Their previous album, Call the Doctor, had some impressive songs, with my favorite being “Good Things”, but I didn’t love it from start to finish. I liked the band enough to pick up Dig Me Out, though, albeit not on its release date ... I wasn’t hooked yet. I found that album to be more consistent than Call the Doctor, and there were so many great songs I could barely pick a favorite (if forced to decide, I’d go with “One More Hour”).

I saw them for the first time in August of ‘98, when they were still touring behind Dig Me Out. It might have been that night when I understood something special was going on. It wasn’t that they were an irresistible live force, at least not yet ... Corin let her voice make the statements, and what a voice it is, but she was fairly calm onstage. Carrie already had her rock star moves ... she was far and away the most charismatic. More important, they were loud in the classic punk manner, and the sound system was never sufficient, so it took years before I felt I could really appreciate their concerts.

But there was Janet Fucking Weiss. I’ve seen a few great drummers in my day ... Keith Moon was always my favorite, which is why I stopped thinking of the band as “The Who” after he died. Janet Weiss was knocking on the door of the great drummers. Often, the mix at S-K shows was bad enough that the drums were the easiest thing to hear, so I knew right away how great she was. And she had, and has, great drummer hair.

Since that night, I’ve never been able to hear their music without noticing how great she is. It was another step beyond fandom to something else.

They played a song or two from their upcoming album, The Hot Rock, but the Dig Me Out songs (six of them) made the biggest impression.

Something had happened between Sleater-Kinney and me. I saw them twice in 1999, twice in 2000, three times in 2002, and once a year between 2003 and 2006 (it helped that this Portland band played quite often in the Bay Area). By the time of their hiatus, I’d seen them a dozen times, and they fit the cliché of the artist who keeps getting better. They now had a confidence on stage (Carrie’s memoir showed how much that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t tell). Their unique sound combined three idiosyncratic talents, all remarkable, into a whole that was impossibly better than the parts. Corin’s astonishing vocals ... Carrie’s singular guitar work ... and Janet, the most traditional sounding of the group, she sounded like a Rock Drummer, except she was perhaps the greatest living Rock Drummer.

We know now how necessary their hiatus was. With the passing years, my hopes that they would return grew weaker. And, as I have said many times, I pined miserably because I knew at my age, I was unlikely to ever find another artist that would mean so much to me.

Which is another way of saying that they had changed my life. Not just because I missed them, but also because I thought they were irreplaceable. And I knew this in 2006, and in the following “hiatus” years, in a way I could never have imagined in 1997 when Dig Me Out was released.

So OK, it’s just a rock and roll band, and “life-changing” is a pretty big claim. Sisyphus changed my life. In music, Bruce Springsteen did the same. But Sleater-Kinney, great artists that they were and are, looked at the world with a pitiless eye, but also suggested a life worth living. It was rewarding to follow them. Life-changing? Maybe that goes too far. But they were a difference maker.

That the hiatus finally ended, that their new album was as good as what came before, that their concerts are better than what came before (I’ve seen them three times since the return) ... this is more miraculous than you might think. The world is full of artists who came back only to remind us of how good they used to be. Sleater-Kinney came back, and they were as good as they used to be.

And for me, it all started 20 years ago today, when Dig Me Out was released.

Here they are at 924 Gilman, a month-and-a-half after the album was released:

Here they are, post-hiatus:

And the best song from Dig Me Out:


music friday: sleater-kinney, live in paris

There are a few live albums that I treasure: B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, 1969: Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed, Neil Young’s Time Fades Away and Live Rust, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Live!, Ramones, It’s Alive, pretty much any live Bruce Springsteen albums, The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, Otis Redding’s Live in Europe, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. But mostly, I find live albums to be useful as a souvenir of a show I might have attended, but otherwise I prefer studio recordings. (This isn’t to say I prefer studio recordings to live performances, just that a lot of what makes for a good concert performance can’t be duplicated on record.)

As is well-documented, Sleater-Kinney’s comeback from a long hiatus has been a remarkable success, with the album No Cities to Love as good as any they had released, and with the subsequent tour, of which I saw three shows, showing that if anything, S-K was more powerful than ever. Thus, it’s appropriate that they have finally released their first live album, recorded early in the tour.

There isn’t anything extravagant about the album ... one disc, just over 47 minutes long, only 13 songs, no cover versions. Many, even most, of my favorites are missing. But I have no complaints about the song selection. Four songs from No Cities to Love, four from the last pre-hiatus album, The Woods (arguably their best), and five split across four albums, with “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” the oldest and Dig Me Out the only one of the four with two selections. There are two basic formats live albums take, a career retrospective or a focus on recent material. Live in Paris is largely the latter. It serves as further evidence that Sleater-Kinney is not yet in decline ... the “later” songs are just as good as the older ones.

It’s nice to have a decent mix ... there is a lot of S-K live on YouTube, but too much of it is audience recordings. What makes the album work is what makes their concerts work, indeed, what makes everything they do work. Corin is a great singer, Carrie is a charismatic and idiosyncratic guitarist and singer, Janet is one of the premier living rock drummers, they write great songs, and with all of this, they are somehow still more than the sum of their parts.

The question remains, is Live in Paris a mandatory addition to the catalog? A few of the songs sound better here, everything is at least good, and the song selection is excellent. But, as is generally true with live albums, when I want to hear Sleater-Kinney, I’m more likely to put on The Woods or Dig Me Out than to listen to Live in Paris.

Sub Pop has kindly put the entire album on YouTube:

To show what a good mix can do, here is “Entertain” as it showed up on YouTube the night after the concert, followed by the audio version from Live in Paris. Janet kills it no matter which one you hear.

It's hard to deny the visuals of Carrie, but the latter sure sounds better.


what i've been reading

The modular design allows for the actual reactors to be built off-site at a factory, then transported to the power plant site by boat, rail or even truck. Constructing the major components off-site at a central facility saves both time and money, according to NuScale, and makes feasible an entirely new approach to building nuclear power plants. The modular design also eliminates the need for the massive cooling systems required by traditional nuclear power plants.

-- Glenn McDonald, “A Nuclear Energy Company Wants to Build America’s First Small Modular Reactor

Here’s the big worry. Trump is unhinged and ignorant. Bannon is nuts and malicious. If not supervised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, their decisions could endanger the world.... Trump’s and Bannon’s version of “America First” is no less dangerous. It is alienating America from the rest of the world, destroying our nation’s moral authority abroad, and risking everything we love about our country. Unsupervised by people who know what they’re doing. Trump and Bannon could also bring the world closer to a nuclear holocaust.

-- Robert Reich, “Trump and Bannon’s 'America First’

Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 mid-westerners will repel bullies, we will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the meek and the disenfranchised. And we will do it all with soul, with heat, and with joy.

-- David Harbour, SAG Award acceptance speech

What’s at stake isn’t “fake news.” What’s at stake is the increasing capacity of those committed to a form of isolationist and hate-driven tribalism that has been around for a very long time. They have evolved with the information landscape, becoming sophisticated in leveraging whatever tools are available to achieve power, status, and attention. And those seeking a progressive and inclusive agenda, those seeking to combat tribalism to form a more perfect union — they haven’t kept up.

-- Danah Boyd, “The Information War Has Begun

There are so many big, huge things that we are confronting right now. Institutional oppression, injustice, marginalization, discrimination. At the core of all that, before we can form a resistance, one thing I wanted to talk about is just your own self-care. I’m someone who suffers pretty heavily from depression and despair, and it takes me a long time sometimes to get outside of the bubble of melancholy and despondency. I want you to remember, for those of you that suffer either from depression, just from the election, that’s enough, but also chemically, or just are dealing with whatever you are dealing with: remember what it felt like out there today? To be standing among people, to feel people up against you that have your back, to look people in the eyes, to share a smile. And when we go home, it’s not gonna feel like it did today. And so please take care of yourselves, and remember that there are people like me, and people like many of you, who need someone to call them, who need someone to check in, and who need someone to say “let’s do this”. Because we can not have resistance without existence. Please love yourself, and take care of each other. It’s the only way we can move forward.

-- Carrie Brownstein:


new year's eve with sleater-kinney

It started out as an unusual night (as Carrie said at one point, “"This is one of the first times in many years that I have actually been out on New Year’s… Way past my bedtime right now"). So it was interesting how normal it felt after a while, as if we’d been doing this forever.

The most obvious difference was never going to feel normal. My S-K buddy of almost two decades, with whom I’d attended all 14 previous shows, is living in SoCal now. You can’t normalize the absence of that kind of connection. The solution was two-fold. First, I went with two great folks for new bonding. Second, while my friend wasn’t there, three other friends did attend, named Corin, Carrie, and Janet. Corin said it was good to see us, that she remembered so many faces from over the years, prior to saying, “Some of you might recognize this song” and segueing into “Milkshake n’ Honey”, which I hadn’t heard them play in more than ten years. They don’t often surprise any more ... we know pretty much what they will do, no matter the set lists ... and that’s what I mean about being with friends.

Opening act The Thermals from Portland was pretty good ... they’ve been around for almost 15 years, so “pretty good” was expected. Most importantly, Kathy Foster plays bass. It’s rare to see a bass guitar at an S-K show. Even more rare, she joined the band for a couple of the encores, which I think was a first for me: S-K w/bass.

The music between sets came via Britt Daniel of Spoon. He relied a lot on Bowie and Prince, which was appropriate.

A little past 10:30, S-K hit the stage. They seemed to be having more fun than I remember from the past. From my spot on the floor, some rows back, Carrie seemed to have someone down front who was entertaining her (pun not intended). They pulled out “Dance Song ‘97”, which I don’t think I’d ever seen live. They trotted out warhorses like “Little Babies” and “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun”. I began their set with my earplugs in, but I took them out for an incendiary version of “Jumpers” ... I don’t know if they hit another gear or I just reacted to the overwhelming noise, but it was then that I came closer to the rarely-achieved moment of ecstasy that I’m always hoping for at a concert.

About 11:40, they started the unmistakable riff that said "Let's Call It Love". I shouted at my friend that of course they would play it, because it usually went on for so long. Sure enough, after a segue into "Entertain", a big ball came down from the ceiling, we counted down from ten, the ball lit up to read "Sleater-Kinney 2017", and a bunch of balloons and ticker tape things fell on all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever been at something like that ... I can only remember one big New Year’s Eve party, and it didn’t have that. All of this was way more fun than I expected. I guess I assumed in my cranky way that a New Year’s celebration would just get in the way of the concert, but I was wrong.

They finished with all of the acts on stage, doing "Faith" (Carrie vocals, Corin on ACOUSTIC GUITAR!) and "Rebel Rebel" (everyone taking turns singing lead). Corin channeled her 60s Girl Group self during the latter, before turning ferocious when her lead moment arrived.

Here’s the setlist:

The Fox
Far Away
Oh!
Surface Envy
Little Babies
A New Wave
What's Mine Is Yours
Milkshake n' Honey
Get Up
Not What You Want
Bury Our Friends
Wilderness
Price Tag
Jumpers
Dig Me Out
Modern Girl
Let's Call It Love
Entertain

Gimme Love
Dance Song '97
You're No Rock n' Roll Fun
Faith
Rebel Rebel

Here is “Faith”, from the invaluable AdmiralNeeda:


music friday: sleater-kinney

It’s just a few weeks until we see Sleater-Kinney’s New Year’s Eve show. Here’s my latest attempt at the S-K Top Ten:

 

10. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”. Pictures of me on your bedroom door.

9. “Let’s Call It Love”. Show me your darkest side, and you better be my bloody match.

8. “No Cities to Love”. It's not the weather, it's the nothing we love!

7. “Entertain”. We're not here ‘cause we want to entertain.

6. “Modern Girl”. My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day.

5. “Words and Guitar”. Take take the noise in my head.

4. “Good Things”. Why do good things never wanna stay?

3. “One More Hour”. Oh, you've got the darkest eyes.

2. “Youth Decay”. I'm all about a forked tongue and a dirty house.

1. “Sympathy”. We're all equal in the face of what we're most afraid of.


music friday: bruce, sleater-kinney, and a promised land

My two favorites are on my mind today. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s 67th birthday, which he is marking with the release of his autobiography, Born to Run. Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney have announced a New Year’s Eve show in San Francisco.

In 2002, we saw Sleater-Kinney for the 8th time. It was the second time we’d seen them at the Fillmore. It was, in fact, exactly 14 years ago today. Which, as you might have figured out, meant I saw Sleater-Kinney on Bruce Springsteen’s birthday. And they did me a favor: they played “Promised Land”.

Someone named Han Q Duong had a website devoted to S-K back then, and he wrote after I commented on this show, “I'm glad they played Promised Land for him, as his entire blog is pretty much entirely Sleater-Kinney and Bruce Springsteen, with a little bit of the San Francisco Giants mixed in.”

When I got home that night, I had to post something to the blog before I went to sleep:

they played promised land

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

More later, I gotta go to bed.

Theirs is a sped-up version, with highlight moments for all of them. And, as Michael Tedder said, “Weiss is playing the harmonica while drumming on this, because there’s nothing Janet Fucking Weiss can’t do.”

The date on this is September 25 ... close enough:

And then there’s this, one of my favorite photos:

corin bruce


music friday: jovana babovic, dig me out

I’ve read maybe half-a-dozen books in the 33 1/3 series, short volumes about individual albums. There was Nicholas Rombes on the first album by the Ramones, Gina Arnold on Exile in Guyville, and perhaps the best, Douglas Wolk on James Brown Live at the Apollo. Each author takes a different approach, which seems to be encouraged ... there’s no real template I can see. A lot of time is spent placing the works in their cultural context. Arnold does a track-by-track comparison of the Liz Phair album and Exile on Main St., but that’s not the main thing in general.

Jovana Babovic is an historian with a clear love for Sleater-Kinney. She goes far afield from a track-by-track approach ... in fact, she never comes close. Instead, she places riot grrrl within the history of rock and roll music, shows how the women who created the music in that genre were battling against long-held prejudices against women in rock, and then explains how Sleater-Kinney grew out of that milieu, tying them specifically to the Pacific Northwest. She shows how the band drew power from that community, but also how they couldn’t be confined to those roots.

She talks about the making of Dig Me Out, which took eight days during a miserable snow storm, pointing out that they were able to create the album under those conditions because they were prepared (this reminded me of Rombes noting that The Ramones were able to make their first album so cheaply because they rehearsed before they ever hit the studio). Once S-K hit the road, touring behind the album, they confronted the condescending sexism of the sound guys, who never understood that these women knew what they were doing. And a key moment in the book comes when S-K are opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a fan of the headliners is giving Corin some shit. “We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band; we are the band.”

One question I have had through the close to 20 years I’ve been a fan of Sleater-Kinney is why they have so many middle-aged guys among their admirers. I once wrote, “Sleater-Kinney are a 21st-century version of classic rock. Their most obvious roots are in punk via riot grrrl, but the less obvious roots are reflected in the bands they cover in concert: Creedence, Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Airplane, Richard Thompson, even Danzig. The Woods sounded like Blue Cheer meets Led Zep; drummer Janet Weiss plays like a cross of Keith Moon and John Bonham.” Their music reflects the tastes of a lot of middle-aged men. What Babovic reminds us, again and again, is that the music is made by women, and that while these women want to reach out to the largest audience possible, they will never do this at the expense of their demand that what women do in rock music is not just relevant, but crucial. (Babovic quotes Weiss about those middle-aged men: "We always joked that Corin had these intellectual 50-year-old men who wore glasses and looked like college professors. ... She really had a type -- these guys always stood on her side and they were Corin's special, intellectual fans.")

I don’t know which of their eight albums is my favorite ... probably Dig Me Out or The Woods. But I remember in the earlier days, when a question often arose, are you a Call the Doctor person or a Dig Me Out person? It was never close, in my book ... most obviously, Dig Me Out is when Janet Weiss joined the band, and “my” Sleater-Kinney always includes Janet. I can say that I very much enjoyed revisiting the album through the lens of Jovana Babovic.

Here are my favorite tracks from Dig Me Out:

Dig Me Out”. The video, from 2015, has everything that is great about a Sleater-Kinney concert. Corin’s unstoppable vocals, Carrie dripping charisma and playing her idiosyncratic guitar lines, Janet Fucking Weiss of the Great Drummer Hair showing why she is the best.

One More Hour”. Perhaps the most heartbreaking song in their catalog, and in the running for best breakup song ever. Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes.

Turn It On”. The video is from CBGB’s in 1997, a show written about in the book.”On top of that, there were rats everywhere.... ‘It was just gross and just-don’t-touch-anything,’ Tucker said. ‘But it was also a very rock ‘n’ roll club.’”

Words and Guitar”. As much a statement of purpose as “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” from the previous album. The email list for S-K fans I was on was named after this song. “Take take the noise in my head, C'mon and turn turn it up, I wanna turn turn you on, I play it all i play it all, I play it words + guitar!”

Little Babies”. I’ve never been quite sure what this song is about, but it is their greatest sing-along. “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do, All the little babies go oh oh i want to.” I could add that Janet is great on this one, but I could say that for every song they recorded once she joined the band.

Not What You Want”. Like the Stones’ “Rip This Joint”, this is S-K blasting through a song at breakneck speed ... as Corin sings, “80, 95, maybe more!” As such, my favorite S-K blitz song, at least until a couple of years later, when Janet had her greatest moment in “Youth Decay”. (That song has my favorite Sleater-Kinney lyric ever, one that could be my motto: “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house.”) The video is from Portland, 2006 ... after that show, they took off for a decade.

Bonus: here’s the last time we saw them do “Youth Decay” live, San Francisco, 2015:


hope's a burden or it sets you free

A friend of mine turns 51 today. She’s not a big fan of public exposure on the internet, so she’ll remain nameless here, but pretty much everyone reading this knows who I mean.

We met more than 20 years ago ... we can never remember exactly when it was, but at this point, we can at least say “more than 20 years” and know we’re being accurate. We were in grad school together, we taught together, for one year we were about the only ones of our buddies still teaching at Cal. My wife and I took her to see our hometown where we grew up, met, and got married. Later, we stayed with her parents and she showed us some of the things she remembered from her childhood.

I wasn’t looking for a best friend ... I’m one of the lucky people whose wife of 43+ years is also my best friend ... but there has never been anything second-rate about my friendship with the birthday girl, she has always been there for me, as I hope I have been for her.

Due partly to unforeseen circumstances, she’s moving out of the Bay Area temporarily, the first time she has done this since we met. She is, in fact, driving to her new home today, on her birthday, with her beloved partner of many years. They take care of each other ... it’s a great thing to see ... this new experience will likely be very good for them both.

I have to admit, though ... I already miss her. Her birthday especially reminds me of the past ... between she and her partner and me and my wife, we always made sure to spend a night together on our birthdays, four times a year.

If there is a cultural artifact that bonds us, it might be Sleater-Kinney. Together we’ve seen them fourteen times since 1998. I find myself listening to S-K, thinking of her, trying to pick just the right song to include here. But most of their goodbye songs (and they have some great ones) feel final, and are filled with the problems that led to goodbye. My friend and I have never had those kind of problems, so as much as I’d like to post something like “Good Things” (“Why do good things never wanna stay, Some things you lose some things you give away”) or “One More Hour” (“I know it’s so hard for you to say goodbye”), the totality of those songs is much darker than how I feel. Yesterday, I sent her an email with a link to the following video, which I hope was the right choice as they travel to the desert. “There are no cities, no cities to love. It's not the city, it's the weather we love! ... It's not the weather, it's the people we love!”

And one more: the last song we saw Sleater-Kinney perform (so far), May 3, 2015:

My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day.


music friday: my 2015

It’s an hour until Xmas begins, so I’ll be quick. Here are ten songs that I listened to a lot in 2015, according to Last.fm, which tracks my Spotify listens. They’re in reverse order of times played, and I’ve skipped some (only one track per artist is the main disruptive “rule”). So the song at the bottom of the list is the one I played the most during the year. As I said when I posted something similar on Facebook about my listening habits, if it wasn’t for Sleater-Kinney, I’d be 1000 years old. Happy holidays to everyone.


throwback to 2006

Nine years ago today, I posted a roundup of TV in 2006. Nine years is a long time in TV World ... almost everything I talked about is long gone:

Battlestar Galactica, The L Word, The Shield, 24, Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, Big Love, Huff, Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, Bonds on Bonds, The Unit, My Name Is Earl, The Office (U.S.), House, Lost, Rescue Me, Deadwood, Entourage, Life on Mars (U.K.), Weeds, Dexter, The Wire, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Ugly Betty, The Nine.

Some of my favorite shows are on this list: Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire. Some shows I barely remember are here: Bonds on Bonds, The Nine. There are even three shows where essays I wrote ended up in anthologies (BSG, 24, and House). They are all gone now. You can find a bit of the spirit of Lost in The Leftovers. Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin have similarities.

And then there are a few items that are still around in some form:

Comedy Central (although Jon Stewart is gone, and Stephen Colbert has moved to CBS).

Tim Goodman (went from the Chronicle to the Hollywood Reporter).

The World Cup (in 2006 it was the men, in 2015 it was the women).

Here is one of the highlights of TV 2006 for me ... it comes from a show I didn’t much like: