Tag Archives: riot grrrl

All Hands on the Bad One – Sleater-Kinney

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.

Playful, sinister, vaguely surreal – Every Word by Belly

A few days back I spoke about Nino Rota’s Casanova soundtrack playing in ‘that space between the lulling and the nightmarish’ and being ‘playful, sinister, vaguely surreal’. I’ve been searching my iTunes library, trying to find more music that had a similar vibe, but my collection of orchestral/movie music only runs to a couple of dozen records and none of them really had that same feel. But I did remember a record that sparked in me the same kind of associations. It was actually a rock album, Star by Belly.

There’s a moment on Star, more than any other, that most powerfully creates that feeling of the childhood world being menaced by something adult and not fully understood.

Every Word, the fourth song on the record, starts unexceptionally enough, although it sticks with its basic E major to Eb major chord progression long enough for it to set up a palpable tension. But the strangeness really begins after the song’s chorus section (for want of a better term), when the whole things stops and, after the chord is allowed to ring out long enough to make you think the song might be over, it starts again at a crawl. The rest of the song is then taken at a really slow tempo. The sort that you don’t encounter in rock music very often. It’s amazing how you can make something familiar strange by the simple act of dragging it out, slowing it right down.

Over this, a high-pitched melody plays, on an electric guitar doubled by something. A theremin? Tanya Donelly’s voice, possibly, altered, manipulated or repitched? It’s hard to tell, which is the point. Familiar chord changes and rhythms made strange by playing them too slowly. Familiar sounds made strange by combining them with others, by filtering and processing them. Making the familiar strange is what this album does.

Every Word is only the most obvious moment of weirdness on the record. But this is an album that deals over and again with childhood exposure to the adult world, in which everything is weird because of its newness. Or rather, an adult imagining herself as a child, for Donelly was in her mid-twenties and had been a professional musician for seven or eight years at this point. For sceptics of the band, and there were a few, there was something off-putting about the distance between the physical reality of Donelly the grown woman and her child (childish? Childlike?) narrators, a distance made greater by the soft, high-pitched voice she sang the songs in. That vocal tone, which she hadn’t used on previous Throwing Muses or Breeders records and wouldn’t use for Belly’s second album King, was essentially an exaggeration of her normal singing voice. Using her head voice rather than projecting from the diaphragm, accentuating her vocals’ natural airiness and lightness, she made herself sound younger, which perfectly suited the Brothers Grimm world of the album.

But working with these kinds of conceits and affectations without explaining them can lead to misinterpretation, and Donelly came in for some unwarranted criticism from some within the riot grrrl scene for working with metaphor and symbols and allegory (and so obscuring her message), for some of her mannerisms and even for her stage clothes, and above all for failing to make herself and her songs immediately comprehensible.

Whether as a direct result of this flak or not, when Belly next made an album, the tinny, something-bad-going-down-in-Toytown sound of Star had given way to a muscular, live-off-the-floor directness. King was recorded at Compass Point in the Bahamas by Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who) and featured minimal overdubs, hard panning, even live vocals. There aren’t many bands with such a small body of work who made two albums so different from each other. The songs were clearly the work of the same writer, but it was as if 10 years had passed between them rather than just two.

I like both albums equally, but Star I tend to listen to less. It has such a particular sound and mood that it doesn’t fit every occasion. When you’re in the mood for it though, it’s just the thing. There is nothing else like it.

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Belly on the beach, 1995. ©Stephen Dirado