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random friday, 1997 edition: sleater-kinney, "words and guitar"

Sleater-Kinney had released two albums as 1997 rolled in. The first gave hints of something special to come, the second, Call the Doctor, began to deliver on those promises. On the title cut, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” the heartbreaking “Good Things” and others, S-K established a template for the next few years: twin vocals, often with separate simultaneous lyrics, Carrie Brownstein’s idiosyncratic guitar riffs, and Corin Tucker’s outlandish voice.

Sometime between Call the Doctor and their third album, Dig Me Out, the band added a new drummer, Janet Weiss. In many ways, Weiss was the most traditional of the three band members. She wasn’t unique, the way Carrie and Corin were. Instead, she was a streamlined Keith Moon, an awesomely powerful drummer who pushed the band’s riot grrrl punk to another level. It’s hard to choose a best album for a band that never released a bad one, but Dig Me Out has a special place in my heart as the first one to include Corin, Carrie, and Janet.

Shuffle play could have tossed out any number of songs from that album, and I would have found something to say, but “Words and Guitar” is particularly important, in that it proclaims the band’s musical heart, loud and, well, not clear, loud and muddy, but good muddy. Carrie leads off with a brief guitar line … as is often the case in S-K songs, she rarely plays solos but she’s always playing lead. Janet starts pounding the drums, Corin lays down the power chords, and she warbles the title: “Words! And! Guitar! I GOT IT! Words! And! Guitar! I WANT IT WAY WAY TOO LOUD!” Then, as she shouts ohs and ahs, Carrie chimes in with a counterpoint lyrics of her own: “Can’t take this away from me, Music is the air I breathe.”

The second verse charges on top of the first. “TAKE TAKE the noise in my head! Come on and TURN TURN it up! I wanna TURN TURN you on!”

Then, an interlude about quiet songs and silky sounds. It doesn’t last long, and we’re back to “Words! And! Guitar!”

The power of Corin’s voice and power chords, pushed by Janet’s drums, is ferocious. Carrie’s vocals and guitar take the song in other directions without ever separating from the core. Three extremely talented musicians, but it must be said, the sum is even greater than the parts. They continued on for four more albums, never falling into a rut, always evolving, until finally they took their final hiatus. I miss them to this day.

Here’s a lo-fi video of them in 1997 … note that when the song is over, you can quit watching, since the last couple of minutes is just the crowd waiting for the band to appear for encores:

If you thought the sound on that was muddy, here is some real sludge. I include this because it gives a feel for what their concerts sounded like. Corin had The Voice, and Carrie had charisma to spare, but I saw them a dozen times and I rarely “heard” them any better than in the following video. What you can hear is Janet … and perhaps this is one of many reasons why I loved her in particular, because when everything else was muddy, the drums were still there.

Finally, I should offer up at least one video with good sound. I don’t let shuffle play choose the same artist more than once in a year, so this is Sleater-Kinney’s only appearance, much as I’d like to include them some more. Here is the official video for “Modern Girl” from their final album, The Woods … it’s a quiet one, if you’ve read this far but avoided the other videos because they’re too noisy: