All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney’s fifth album, seems nowadays not to be one of their most highly thought-of records, but it’s always been my favourite of theirs. Any number of Sleater-Kinney records give you righteous anger, interweaving guitar lines, the interplay of Corin Tucker’s ferocious wail and Carrie Brownstein’s nasal sneer, and powerful, inventive drumming from Janet Weiss, but no other S-K album is leavened with as much humour and stylistic playfulness.
Sleater-Kinney was formed in 1994 by Tucker and Brownstein as a side project from their main groups, Heavens to Betsy (Tucker) and Excuse 17 (Brownstein). Heavens to Betsy, particularly, were a well-known and influential riot grrrl band, so Sleater-Kinney were a supergroup of sorts. (I listened back to Heavens to Betsy’s album, Calculated, while working on this. It’s startlingly visceral; you don’t hear indie music so obviously angry these days. We could do with more of it.) Their first couple of records were scrappy affairs – the songwriting was still fairly primitive, and the band a little shaky.
Shakiness disappeared entirely when powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss joined. Weiss had been in a San Francisco band called the Furies, then formed Quasi with her husband Sam Coomes. A self-taught drummer, she evolved a frantic style built to fill out the sound of the skeletal bands she usually played in (both S-K and Quasi had no bass player and were lacking in low end compared to other bands). By the time of All Hands on the Bad One, Weiss had been with Sleater-Kinney for two records already, and the band was essentially fully evolved and as wide-ranging as it would ever be. While Was it a Lie and #1 Must Have (which explored the way that riot grrrl was discussed by mainstream media) could have been on any S-K album, the likes of Leave You Behind – the sweetest, most vulnerable ballad, the group ever wrote – the self-explanatory You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun and Milkshake & Honey, the group’s riff on the idea of modern-day Sun Also Rises-style expats in Paris, could only have appeared on of All Hands on the Bad One.
One Beat and The Woods, the last albums the group made before going on a 10-year hiatus, were responses to 9/11 and Bush-era America, and as such, they were defiant, largely humourless affairs. While they had half a dozen great songs each (and, it should be said, found favour with a lot of people who hadn’t been into their earlier music), I found myself disappointed by them as albums. I loved the band most when they mixed the goofy, the heartfelt and the furiously political. All Hands on the Bad One is, for that reason, essential.
I’ve not really investigated the music the band has made since they reformed. Lots of bands that have gotten back together recently have made great records, so I’m sure I’ll catch up at some point. I’ve followed the furore about their new album and Janet Weiss’s decision to leave the band, and what I’ve heard of the new music suggests it’s a fair way away from the sound of the band as I knew it. Nevertheless, I’m open to it. After all, they already showed on All Hands On the Bad One that they could cover a lot of stylistic territory.