First things first. Turns out it’s Sleater-Kinney as in rhymes with slater, not as in rhymes with ‘sleeter’ (not sure what one of those would be: someone who provides suboptimal snow?). So I’ve been pronouncing their name wrongly for the last fifteen or so years. And why is that? Because for all that I knew who they were, and indeed was not entirely unfamiliar with Call the Doctor before it was chosen as this week’s album at Mookbarks, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard anyone talking about them on the radio or television. They have spent nearly a quarter of a century lurking a little under the radar.
I can’t remember exactly when I first became aware of them, but I’m fairly sure I had no idea who they were back in 1996 when Call the Doctor came out, because I found out about music through Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session, Mark Radcliffe’s Graveyard Shift and, to a lesser extent, whatever was flavour of the month in the NME. And at that particular point in time, the British music scene was very focused on the home-grown product. Which is a shame, because my 18 year old self would have appreciated this a lot more than Menswear or Sleeper, or the second Oasis record or whatever else Radio 1 were hyping at the time
I’m not quite sure where they fit in to the musical canon. I think I first gave them a listen because they had been compared to New England American gothic country punk band Throwing Muses (at some point I will probably get around to writing an bonus piece about why their debut record was one of the best records to come out of the 1980s) but I don’t quite see the comparison. Sleater-Kinney are not quite so not-of-this-world. They’re a bit late, and not quite ragged enough around the edges, to be riot grrrl (though they came from Olympia, so you might want to argue that they were the very definition of riot grrrl. I have a theory that the most interesting music to emerge from that scene came much later, when its protagonists had learned to play. I’d rather listen to Ex Hex’s Ripped, produced by three forty-something veterans of that scene a couple of years ago, than anything by Bikini Kill or Huggy Bear) and insufficiently miserable to be grunge. But perhaps the trick is to wind back another twenty years for a musical reference point. Listening to this record, I can see why Greil Marcus described them as the greatest punk band there ever was.
Their sound is a little low and bass-heavy, compared to say, the Sex Pistols, which is odd because they don’t actually have a bass guitar player on this record. It is a three piece comprising lead guitar, rhythm guitar and drums, and I can only guess that the sound comes from having de-tuned the guitars down to, at the very least, a D, and possibly a C#. It’s fast, it’s at least somewhat furious sounding, and lead singer Corin Tucker produces a really in-your-face vocal performance. All of which would do little to distinguish them from a thousand other bands if the songs weren’t any good, but I’m pleased to report that it’s generally pretty good – and in places, better than that. There’s something euphoric about the way the guitars change up a gear at about 1m 35 into opening track, Call the Doctor and Good Things is an object lesson in how to write a 3 minute pop song.
It’s not the most musically diverse sounding record in the world and I don’t doubt that were it longer, it would start to feel samey, but they have called it exactly right in keeping the songs short (only Good Things and Taste Test exceed the 3 minute mark, and even then, only by seconds) and the whole thing is only half an hour long.
I happened to be thinking about the whole experience of nightclubs this week, sparked by a trip for a friend’s 40th to Balkanarama, which I think must be the first time I’ve been inside one in the best part of ten years, though I rather enjoyed the experience of jumping up and down in a crowded sweaty room to very rapid east-European folk music. But back in the day, I used to regularly spend my Saturday nights (or perhaps it was my Friday nights, I can’t quite recall) on the bottom floor of a place called ‘The Rocking Horse’ on Victoria Street. While the upper two floors tended to play what I’ve taken to calling throat-infection metal and sub-Marilyn Manson goth music, the bottom floor was a haven for the punkier end of indie and this album would have sounded great on that small dance floor. But as far as I know, I never actually heard a Sleater-Kinney track being played there.
So stick it on the stereo, turn up the volume and jump around in the moshpit inside your head.
Highlights: Call the Doctor, Good Things, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, Taste Test