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 listened 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.”