joy

My wallpapers generally follow two patterns. On my desktop, I have a rotating random selection of photos from the hard drive. On my phone, I usually have the latest cute picture of my grandson.

But right now, both desktop and phone have the same photo, cropped in the case of the latter to fit the screen:

carrie brownstein first pitch

I love this picture because of the look on Carrie Brownstein’s face. There is such joy, as she throws out the first pitch at a Mariners’ game. She has brought joy to a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s always been easy for her ... we’ll find out when her memoir comes out later in the year. In the meantime, look at that face:

carrie brownstein first pitch


sleater-kinney at the masonic

It has happened. It was necessary, and it happened. If those were the last two Sleater-Kinney concerts I attend, I can accept that. Nothing lasts forever, but there was something about The Hiatus that left a void, and now that void has been filled.

I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of why I love this band so much. But there is no denying the reality of that love. And after nine years of listening to “One More Hour” and “Good Things” and fighting back tears, not always successfully, I’ve been able to reacquaint myself with their work, and whatever tears remain are tears of joy.

I’m comparing those two shows not just to the previous twelve times we’d seen them, but also to my faulty memories and the curse of nostalgia. So I can’t be certain my comparisons are accurate. But in 2015, Sleater-Kinney is tighter and more confident than ever. Corin has always had The Voice, and she’s never been shy about using it. But now, I felt a sweet pride from her ... when she sang “LAAAAAND Ho!” in “The Fox”, the look on her face said “I have this gift, and I know it, and you know it, and isn’t it grand?” While she still isn’t the most active person on stage (except for one song, which I’ll get to), she has lost all of that I’m-not-the-star feel. When I use the word “confident” about these shows, I’m talking mostly about Corin. Janet’s entire style of drumming feeds off of her confidence, so I wouldn’t say in her case that there has been a noticeable increase. Carrie, always the most charismatic one, seems much happier now. Perhaps that’s unfair ... over the years, we didn’t know how hard it was for her, but with hindsight, some of that is revealed. Yet I felt none of it in these shows ... in fact, it was a bit unsettling at times, that Carrie was having fun when the songs didn’t necessarily have a lot of fun in them. Jillian (who deserves special mention ... she and I have been to 14 S-K shows together now, it’s a wonderful thing) remembers the days when the band was looser on stage, when Carrie was goofy and Janet told jokes. Now, they plow through their songs, one after another, almost Ramonesian in the blast, with only an occasional “thank you, San Francisco”. On the second night, Carrie started talking about how they felt a special bond with San Francisco, and it was a lot like the speech she’d given the night before. But then she veered off, mentioned writing “Jumpers” here, and then going into a long, shaggy tale about recording No Cities to Love on the sly in San Francisco. At one point, she was spinning a joking legend out of the making of the album, and Janet tossed in the comedian’s friend, bah-dah-BOOM, and we all laughed and Carrie said everyone should have their own Janet Weiss. (Sigh.) It was a lovely moment, and really the only such moment over the course of two nights, and it was one of the reasons Jillian said she thought she liked the second night even more than the first. They are more confident now, have more fun now, but the goofiness doesn’t often pop up.

A few personal highlights. “Price Tag” is an excellent opener, driven by Janet ... OK, I’m biased, but her more demonstrative displays clearly fired up the crowd throughout the two shows. She even got extra love from the crowd when she played harmonica during “Modern Girl”. The first show truly exploded four songs in, with “What’s Mine Is Yours” ... the out-of-nowhere noise-guitar middle, the overall power behind the performance, let us know early on that this band was still the best. (On the second night, “Turn It On” preceded “What’s Mine Is Yours”, and it was the igniter.) While the old stuff like “Little Babies” and “Words and Guitar” and “Dig Me Out” predictably got the crowd going, the material from the new album was also very welcomed, with “No Cities to Love” a sing-along highlight. I was hoping to hear two songs in particular, and got one of each at the two shows. “Youth Decay” came on Night One ... it’s a favorite of mine for the ferocity of Janet’s drumming, and for the line, “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house”. Late during the main set on Night Two came “Sympathy”, my favorite Corin showcase. Up to that point, I’d made it through almost two entire concerts without getting overly choked up ... I was just so happy that I was seeing them again. But “Sympathy” never fails to grab me, and Corin’s performance may have been the best I’ve witnessed, with an almost theatrical bent to her line readings, and when she held the final note about all the mommies whose hearts were breaking, for what seemed like forever, that was when I finally lost it.

The regular set ended both nights with “Entertain” and “Jumpers”, two songs I love that I also find ... not sure problematic is the word, but they don’t go down easy. “Entertain” is supposedly about lame bands, but I’ve always read it as Carrie standing down the audience, and the passion in her voice is disturbing. And “Jumpers”, which as far as I can tell is a real crowd-pleaser ... well, it’s one of my favorites, too, but it’s about jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and if there’s room for multiple interpretations of “Entertain”, there is nothing ambiguous about “Jumpers” ... the singer kills herself, and the final “four seconds was the longest wait” is very emotional.

Having featured the new album during the main set (it’s proof of the rightness of this hiatus-ending move, that the new album is so much a piece of what came before, and that their performances are as good as ever), the encores mostly looked back. Night One’s encores began with Corin making a pro-Planned Parenthood speech, after which she did something we had never seen over the past 17 years. Katie Larkin, the “fourth S-K member” on this tour, who spends the entire night off in a back corner, adding guitars and keyboards and percussion, comes forward to take Corin’s place on the stage and on guitar. Corin then proceeds to sing “Gimme Love” sans guitar, holding the mic “like a singer”. At one point, she ends up on the floor ... can’t say for sure what she’s doing down there, let’s just say that I’ve seen Carrie down there many times, but it’s a first in my experience for Corin. It’s as if she suddenly became Patti Smith or something.

On the second night, “Good Things” and “One More Hour” worked their way into the encore. “Good Things” is probably the first S-K song I really noticed, and “One More Hour” is simply one of the finest break-up songs of all time. Over the past nine years, both songs resonated with the context of the hiatus ... “why do good things never wanna stay” indeed. Now, they were just two songs I loved ... absent that context, I was able to bear hearing them again like I did back in the pre-hiatus days.

Both nights closed with “Modern Girl”. Carrie told us to take over singing the chorus, but she needn’t have bothered ... we were already singing. My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day.

After the second show, I told Jillian that where Carrie has been a rock star from the first moment we set eyes on her, what the band is now feels more like an entire group of rock stars. Oh, Carrie is still the one who attracts our attention the most, and that will likely never change. But the confidence I spoke of earlier has the feel of Rock Star ... not in a look-at-me egotist way, but in a we’re-good-and-we-thank-you-for-knowing way. Since the announcement of the return, I’ve often wondered what they think of all the audience love they are getting. They surely always knew they were special in the hearts of their fans. And while there’s been quite a media blitz compared to the past, Jillian pointed out that the crowd seems to be aging with them ... not as many youngsters as you’d hope. But how does it make them feel, experiencing this unavoidable mass love from their fans? For me, the point is made most clearly in the video for “No Cities to Love”, where an array of cooler-than-cool celebrities like Natasha Lyonne and Daryl from The Walking Dead sing along. The measure of their participation is that each of them in turn melts into each of us fans ... these “celebrities” are fans, too, and they are just so happy to be in a Sleater-Kinney video.

 

Setlist Junkie Stuff: Over the two nights, they played 30 different songs (7 changes from Night One to Night Two, denoted below in bold). More than half of the songs each night came from No Cities to Love or The Woods. Every album except the self-titled debut was represented at some point. Of interest to no one but me: between the two shows, they played nine songs we heard at our very first Sleater-Kinney concert back in 1998: “Dig Me Out”, “Turn It On”, “Joey Ramone”, “One More Hour”, “The End of You”, “Little Babies”, “Get Up”, “Words and Guitar”, and “Good Things”.

Price Tag Price Tag
Fangless Fangless
Oh! Turn It On
What’s Mine Is Yours What’s Mine Is Yours
Ironclad Oh!
Little Babies Surface Envy
A New Wave Get Up
No Anthems No Anthems
All Hands on the Bad One Bury Our Friends
Surface Envy Rollercoaster
No Cities to Love The End of You
One Beat No Cities to Love
Bury Our Friends A New Wave
Youth Decay The Fox
The Fox Words and Guitar
Words and Guitar Sympathy
Entertain Entertain
Jumpers Jumpers
   
Gimme Love Dig Me Out
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone Good Things
Dig Me Out Ironclad
Let’s Call It Love One More Hour
Modern Girl Modern Girl

 

A handful of videos have already surfaced. The best are from concertkid. Here’s one, from Night One:


how good are you

It was one of the stupider things I’ve said. I was, and am, much taken with the work of television critic Tim Goodman, currently with the Hollywood Reporter. Here in the Bay Area, we think of Tim as ours, thanks to his years of work at the San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times. One day, after reading a particularly good column, I emailed Tim and asked him something like, “Do you know how good you are?”

I see now that there were many levels of arrogance in that question. For one thing, there’s the impression I may have given that I was the only person in the world who recognized his excellence. This is nonsense ... Goodman is known across the country as one of our best TV critics. But even worse was the notion he might not have known how good he was. I’m not talking about an egotistic overconfidence. I’m talking about the ability to put words together in a way that informs and entertains. The underlying idea to my question was that he didn’t know what he was doing, he just did it.

One of Sleater-Kinney’s most popular songs is “Modern Girl” from The Woods. On the current tour, it usually gets played during the encores, often as the very last song. It’s seems like one of their simpler songs, with Carrie singing, Janet coming in on harmonica and then drums, Corin mostly taking a backseat. It has a pretty melody. But what gets me is the oft-repeated line from the chorus: “My whole life was/looks/is like a picture of a sunny day.” Carrie may begin by singing, “My baby loves me, I’m so happy, happy makes me a modern girl”, but by the end of the song, the singer is angry, even given her baby’s love. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though ... it’s inherent in that chorus. Her life isn’t like a sunny day, it’s like a picture of a sunny day, and the addition of “a picture” makes all the difference.

I appreciate that this isn’t exactly the deepest bit of close reading ever done. But the thing is, for a long time, I wondered if Carrie knew what she had written, or if it was “just” inspiration. Which is as dumb as thinking Tim Goodman didn’t know he was good. That lyric exists as written ... the person who wrote it knew what she was doing. It’s arrogance to think otherwise.

And this is true of all of their work. Carrie’s idiosyncratic guitar lines? They don’t come by accident, as if she were a primitive guitarist who “doesn’t know what she is doing”. Her idiosyncrasies are purposeful. The way Corin and Carrie blend their vocals, rarely using straight harmonies and often singing entire different lyrics simultaneously? They made a conscious decision to do this. The way they pretend they don’t want a bass player, then give Corin lots of bass lines to play on her guitar? Not an accident.

And yes, I know this is obvious. Or should be. Except too often, I unconsciously assume I know more than the artist. I’m not talking about some version of reader-response theory, where once a text enters the world, it becomes ours. I’m talking about the idea that the artist never knows what they are doing, never really owns their work.


music friday: sleater-kinney again

This weekend, we'll be seeing Sleater-Kinney for the 13th and 14th time. Here is the first song they played, the first time we saw them, in '98 ... the concert came about 4 months before we saw them:

 

Nine years ago this Sunday, we saw them for the 12th time ... thought for many years it would be the last time. Here is what they closed the main set with that night:

 

I don't expect to hear either of those songs this weekend ... neither has turned up on the setlist through the first 40 or so shows of the current tour. We will get this, which opens the new album and which has opened virtually every show on the tour:

 

And we will no doubt these songs from the new album, as well:

 

 


sleater-kinney and me

Sleater-Kinney’s core audience is hardcore … remember back in 2001, when Greil Marcus called them America’s best rock band in Time Magazine? Marcus is part of the small but important subgroup of S-K fans, a subgroup of which I am a member: middle-aged straight men who were raised on rock and roll. The majority of Sleater-Kinney fans from the start have been girls and women, again with a subgroup, this time of gay women. More and more men turned up at the concerts I saw over the years, for whatever reason … S-K had “crossover” appeal in that respect. But, as much as I love them, I don’t think of them as “mine” the way I imagine the female fans who have grown with the band might feel. Suffice to say that all of the fans I have mentioned tend to be obsessively in love with Sleater-Kinney.

I’ve long proposed a Theory of Rock Star Career Trajectories, which claims that by their mid-30s at the latest, most rock and rollers have already peaked. The greatest of them are still capable of the occasional masterpiece, but the general pattern, even for the best, resembles that of The Rolling Stones, who cranked out one classic album after another through Exile on Main St., which came when Mick and Keith were pushing 30, after which we got Goats Head Soup. Sleater-Kinney came up with the perfect answer to this problem, although I’m sure they didn’t think of it this way, or even that it was a long term, pre-planned goal. Sleater-Kinney made seven albums, and every one of them was at the least really, really good, with a couple of classics thrown in. (One example of this: Robert Christgau gave the following grades to those seven albums: A-, A, A, A, A-, A, A.) They were the band that could do no wrong. In 2006, they were 34, 32, and 41 years old, prime candidates for my theories of career trajectories.

And then they went on what they called a “hiatus”.

In the ensuing years, Corin recorded and toured behind two albums, while Carrie and Janet joined Wild Flag for an album and a tour. And Carrie, of course, became famous far beyond the S-K core audience for the TV series Portlandia. Years passed, and the hiatus continued, suggesting a future for the band that felt increasingly unlikely.

I re-read the things I’ve written about Sleater-Kinney when thinking about this post, and realized there was no point in recapping what I’ve already said about how they are important to me. Briefly, they are the closest anyone has ever come in my heart to Bruce Springsteen, who will always be #1. I saw S-K twelve times over the years, played their records over and over, felt the kind of attachment a fan gets when they think of the band members not as Jagger/Richards but as Corin and Carrie and Janet. Even my wife, not a fan, knows who those three names are. When they went on hiatus, I was 53 years old. I knew how much energy it took to be a hardcore fan … three dozen Bruce concerts taught me that point. And I somehow knew there would never be another obsession in my life like what Sleater-Kinney offered. I didn’t have it in me to start all over again. I still had Bruce, and I’ve gone to a lot of Pink concerts over the years (and I love her, but not the same way). But it was time for me to accept my age … I didn’t need to wallow in the music of my youth, there was still plenty of new music to be enjoyed, but the days of seeing a band two nights in a row and thinking about them once or twice a day, those days were gone.

Of course, we all held out hope that “hiatus” meant what it was supposed to mean, that the band would get back together, even though they’d gone out on such a high that any reboot seemed a bit pointless. And as time went on, the idea of a “reunion” became a bit scary, because when I think of reunions, I think of someone like The Eagles making zillions of dollars playing their old tunes for their old fans in big arenas. Yes, I wanted Sleater-Kinney to return, fiercely, but I also feared that return, because up to the hiatus, they could do no wrong, and I didn’t want that near-perfection to be muddied. (If you can hunt down a copy, the classic work on this subject is Mark Shipper’s 1978 novel, Paperback Writer, which tells the story of a truer-than-fact band, The Beatles, who finally give in to calls for a reunion. They cut a new album and go on tour. The album sucks, the audience only wants to hear the oldies, and The Beatles end up as an opening act for Peter Frampton.)

Early in 2014, I read an article about Carrie that detailed some of the personal traumas she went through in the later years of the band. It gave me further understanding of why a hiatus was needed. In a post on March 21, 2014, I wrote as an aside, “it’s time to finally say goodbye to the word ‘hiatus’”. I had to come to terms with the way “the hiatus” had become “the end”.

What we didn’t know was that, on the sly, the band had gotten back together and were recording a new album. OK, they aren’t the biggest band in the world, but I’m astounded that no word of this leaked out. We were completely clueless about the potential existence of an eighth album.

But then came the announcement that they were releasing a box set of their previous albums in remastered format. And inside the box was … a 7” single with a new song, “Bury Our Friends”. A new song???????????????????

What followed was the news that S-K had recorded a new album, and would be touring behind it in 2015.

The new single was very good … for at least one track, they had defeated the Reunion Curse. Subsequent interviews tell us that the members of the band are just as wary of the Curse … they didn’t want to just tour and play oldies, they wanted to make an album, and they kept things secret in part because they wanted to be sure they were happy with the music they were making before putting it out in public.

Maybe it’s that desire to be true to what made them special in the first place. I don’t know. But with No Cities to Love, the question isn’t if it is up to the high standards they have set. No, the question is, how high does it rank within the entire S-K catalog? Because it is that good.

Oh, I’m sure most people thought we’d all say it was good just because we waited so long and we had no perspective and we would like it no matter if it was worthwhile. I might have thought some of those things, myself. But such thoughts only last about as long as it takes to put on the first song on the album, “Price Cut”. It’s about working a low-end job in a bad economy … and it is nowhere near as dreary as that sounds. In fact, it fits right in with the Sleater-Kinney we know. What is nice, right from the start, is that No Cities to Love is recognizably Sleater-Kinney without just piling on the nostalgia for the good old days. The album fits with the others. It has some differences in the sound and production, but that’s always been part of their art … think of the difference between, say, Dig Me Out and The Woods. Janet’s drums still rool. Some say Corin’s vocals are a bit less harsh … can’t say I hear that, but if it brings in new fans, I’m all for it. Carrie’s guitar is more concise than before, especially when compared to something like “Let’s Call It Love.” She says her piece and gets out. Her guitar remains the most idiosyncratic thing about the S-K sound … as I said to a friend, not many people sing like Corin because they can't, but no one plays guitar like Carrie because she sounds like she's from another planet.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track, which is a good sign … any one of them might be tops at a given moment. But I’m am particularly taken with “Hey Darling”, one of the few numbers that I’ve read even the slightest negativity about. It’s not just the lyrics … let’s be honest, I barely pay attention to lyrics until I’ve listened a hundred times, although I find “Hey Darling” intriguing in the way is suggests a hesitancy about returning to the road: “Sometimes the heat of the crowd feels a little too close, Sometimes the shout of the room makes me feel so alone.” No, it’s the sound of Corin’s vocals, and the exquisite melody of the chorus. I swear, this could be a hit single, and I’m not one of those fans who thinks a hit is beneath the band.

I mentioned the conciseness of Carrie’s playing … the production as a whole is very tight, quite unlike those moments in The Woods (and in the tour that accompanied it) when it sounded like the band was going to escape the record entirely and burst madly onto the streets. Sleater-Kinney are as confident on No Cities to Love as I have ever heard them, as befits a group of 40-somethings who have been doing this for a long time. I feel a lot of pleasure when I listen to the album. I’m sure when I get down to the lyrics I’ll find the bittersweet feelings below the surface, but for now, it just makes me feel good. I mean, I go through emotional turmoil every time I hear “One More Hour”, I love that song like I love no other, but it is not a pleasurable song.

Here is “Hey Darling”, and, what the heck, for old times’ sake, “One More Hour”. You see, “One More Hour” was the last song they ever played live, it is THE breakup song of all time, and if it was emotional back in the day, it was almost unbearable during that long hiatus. Now that they are back, I can listen to it again.


music friday: sleater-kinney and friends, "no cities to love"

(I'm so excited my computer works again that I forgot it's not even Friday yet!)

I don’t know why this video makes me so happy. After all those years loving a band that never got beyond cult status, a band that then disappeared for many years, to have them come back and all of a sudden you realize there’s a whole world of Sleater-Kinney fans out there. Like Ellen Page and Connie Britton, Andy Samberg and Brie Larson and Natasha Lyonne, Sarah Silverman and even Norman Reedus!


music friday: sleater-kinney

What did you expect? I’ve had a bunch of S-K Fridays over the years, but that won’t stop me from doing it again. Here is my Sleater-Kinney Top Ten List as of today, meaning if you looked through this blog, you’d probably find me listing ten other songs. In chronological order:

  1. Good Things
  2. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
  3. One More Hour
  4. Turn It On
  5. Words and Guitar
  6. Start Together
  7. Youth Decay
  8. Sympathy
  9. Modern Girl
  10. Let’s Call It Love/Night Light

x-gau on s-k

In his monthly Billboard column, Robert Christgau discusses the Sleater-Kinney box set which was officially released today (“Deeper & Better: Reaccessing Sleater-Kinney’s Material Girls”). As is the norm, Christgau’s take is intelligent, and it’s always a pleasure to read something from him that, if not long-form, is at least longer than the usual Consumer Guide entry. (Christgau is the master of the short-short-form, of course, but it’s still good to see him stretch a bit.)

The strengths of his piece lie in the way he avoids the kind of English-major lyric analysis that has at times been the bane of rock criticism. He breaks down the musical contributions of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss, and places those contributions (and the lyrical content in general) within a larger context that includes more than just the music world. I could quote half of the article just on the different ways Christgau describes the band’s music … I’m always impressed when someone can do this, since I usually just fall back on vague paeans to Corin’s voice and Carrie’s charisma and Janet (sigh). When Weiss joined the band, he writes, they got even better, “because Weiss's chops are as world-class as Tucker and Brownstein's chemistry and vision.” This gets at what I’ve said forever, that when all else failed, I could point non-believers in Janet’s direction and praise those world-class chops. (It takes more work to get to matters of chemistry and vision.)

He does much better than I ever have managed at specifying what it is about her drumming that makes it special (I tend to just say “she’s the Keith Moon of her day” and leave it at that). It fits into his theory that “Compared to most great bands, Sleater-Kinney make lousy background music.” I think of this as the Mix Tape for My Wife syndrome … while she has rather miraculously attended three Sleater-Kinney concerts with me, it’s safe to say they are far from her favorites, one reason being that so few of their songs work for Wife Mix Tapes … that is, they make lousy background music. Christgau identifies one reason for the music’s inability to fade into the general ambiance of our lives: “Usually, receding into the background is a function of groove, and Weiss isn't a groove drummer. She's a beat and noise drummer -- a pure rock drummer devoid of swing or funk and not all that interested in simple punk timekeeping.” Which is what I mean when I say “Keith Moon”, only he actually describes what it is about her drumming that seems Moon-ish.

I’m obsessing about Weiss because, well, because I always obsess about Weiss, so it bears noting that Christgau works wonders when he describes the effect of Tucker’s voice. I’m not going to keep quoting … at some point, you need to just go read the damn thing. But he believes Tucker’s vocals contributed to the struggle to blend with the background … in praising her, he notes, “’listenable’ is not a word that leaps to mind”. This matters because once he gets to the actual box set, Christgau thinks the subtle adjustments have an unexpected side-effect: “without surrendering any of it's own aggression, Tucker's power warble was markedly more, well, listenable. Less screechy.”

The key is that the aggression is still there. The albums were not re-mixed, just re-mastered (a difference I often struggle with, but here I get the point). And Christgau ends his piece with eager anticipation for the new album in January. Someone who hears more music than anyone alive, who for his Billboard review carefully listed to all seven albums three times (“old CD to new CD to vinyl”), who originally gave those seven albums five A grades and two A- grades … now, all of these years later, after revisiting the music of Sleater-Kinney, he says of the upcoming album, “Bet it sounds great.”

There is a bit of a post-script here. After a couple of Twitter exchanges, I spoke to Christgau on the phone for fifteen minutes or so a few days ago. Nothing I said turns up in the article … well, maybe a bit of the paragraph where he talks about box sets (we originally connected when he asked why anyone was buying the S-K set, in advance no less, and I said I’d jumped on it right away). There’s also something funny, and perhaps reflective of what a great critic can do. He asked me several times, in several ways, just why I had this obsession with Sleater-Kinney. I don’t remember what I said, but it was all gibberish, I’m sure, since I’ve never been able to pin it down. After we spoke, I found myself thinking about my relationship to the band, without coming any closer to any kind of conclusion. Then the article turned up, and he managed to explain my position in a variety of ways. I recognized myself in the ways he described the music.

One last personal note. The picture on top of the article is of the band backstage at the Fillmore on September 23, 2002. I was at that show … it was our 8th … it was Bruce Springsteen’s 53rd birthday, and they played “Promised Land” with Janet on harmonica. One blogger at the time wrote about my own comments on the 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.”