Sleater-Kinney got the blues. There’s no two ways about it and that’s no reason to cry. Let’s remember that the blues is as much a celebration of Friday night as it is a lamentation of “done-wrong.” And on One Beat, the sixth album from the Portland, Ore., trio (aka guitarist-vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer-vocalist Janet Weiss), they have got it and got it bad (meaning, of course, good).
Sleater-Kinney’s blues on One Beat also manages to do that rare trick of politicizing the personal and vice versa, without beating you over the head with it. No mean feat, to be sure, especially from a band that carries the weighty “critically acclaimed” tag and, depending on whom you ask (that is, definitely not Noel Gallagher), Most Important Band in the World. But back to the blues, lady-style.
First the celebration: There are moments that make you want to cry for joy — the pure affirmation of “Oh!,” in particular, and the punk R&B shake ’n’ stomp (horns and all!) of “Step Aside” even more so, find Sleater-Kinney climbing the steps to the throne of Etta and Aretha.
Now the lamentation: Somebody had to write some protest music on the heels of Sept. 11, 2001. Neil Young didn’t. Springsteen didn’t. Sleater-Kinney did. (That says as much about the state of rock ’n’ roll as you need to know.) “Far Away” faces that fateful morning head-on. It is a solemn first-person narrative of mother and child told as spare poetics in Tucker’s pressure-valve wail, accompanied by rolling waves of intersecting and crashing riffs and cymbals. It reminds us that, “And the president hides/While working men rush in/to give their lives/I look to the sky/and ask it not to rain/On my family tonight.”
“Combat Rock” — both a musical and titular tip to the late-model Clash sound and message — gives us, “Show you love your country go out and spend some cash/Red white blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam” (delivered in Tucker’s bubbling-over deadpan valley-girl hiccup).
Now that they’ve gotten that out of the way, though, Sleater-Kinney save the really devastatingly great moments of soul-stirring rock for the personal side of the tracks, best exemplified by the record’s bookend cuts. The opening title track stands scientific metaphor (energy, chaos, sound waves) against the backdrop of necessary generational change, the perpetual motion of time, tide and takeover. Weiss’ primal-yet-calculated backbeat gets the balance right between Tucker and Brownstein’s trademark point-counterpoint lyrical delivery (id-superego, primal-reasonable, wailing-comforting, however you hear it). The closer, “Sympathy,” is a seemingly offhand bluesy prayer for motherhood and its ability to devastate and celebrate (sometimes simultaneously). And that says nothing of the epic sweep of riffs and imagery that comprises the centerpiece, “Light Rail Coyote.” It absolutely rocks through its tale of the overlooked, disaffected and left-out finding their place in the world.
Lots of folks want to make sure you know how important Sleater-Kinney are in the face of the Fluff That Surrounds Us. And they are, of course. But don’t let that stop you from getting your heart and ears around this really, really terrific rock ‘n’ roll record.
E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org.