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: