At this point, I’m sure people are aware of my deep, abiding love of Sleater-Kinney. They’re my musical religion, the band that, to me, represents everything that music should be about. All of the elements that make them a definitive rock band to me are present on their 1997 album Dig Me Out, which many fans would argue is their high point as a group.
Admittedly, I’m a big dork about rock music. For me, it isn’t for blasting in the radio or playing at a party. Rather, I like to take the term literally: It should “rock” you, make you think, and wake you up from the constant doldrums of life and humanity. Alleged “rock” bands that don’t do these things are frequently the target of my ire and it’s a constant disagreement I have with other people.
Dig Me Out is one of my all-time favorite rock albums because it has such a sense of purpose. It isn’t just trying to sound cool or to be a fun soundtrack to a dance party (although some of the songs are quite danceable). It wants to jolt the listener, to move them and inspire them. And for a certain group of people, the types that are disenfranchised with the status quo in both the real world and music world, it does just that, which might explain why the band has such a rabid (but relatively small) following.
For Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney brought in a new drummer, Janet Weiss, to go along with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s two-pronged guitar and vocals assault. Weiss immediately gave the band a new-found sense of confidence and swagger, and as a result Dig Me Out sounds like their first album in which they’re aspiring to be a great all-around rock band rather than just a punk outfit. Her presence was immediately felt in the opening title track, which I consider one of the band’s signature songs.
After the release of their 2000 album “All Hands on the Bad One”, music critic Robert Christgau said of the band: “locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967.” It’s a bold statement, but one I find completely true: Not only can I not imagine Sleater-Kinney making a bad album, it’s hard for me to picture them making a bad song. Corin Tucker’s attention-demanding vocals, Brownstein’s complex riffwork and vocal chemistry with Tucker along with Weiss’s drumming made Sleater-Kinney into a machine. It’s apparent on Dig Me Out, which comes storming out of the gate with three of the band’s best songs and never lets up from there, providing an exhilarating 36 minutes of rock and roll.
The oddball song on the album is “One More Hour,” a more personal song that (apparently) details the break-up between Tucker and Brownstein that happened in the early days of the band. Sleater-Kinney’s style makes the song work perfectly, as the ping-ponging guitars and vocals also play into the idea of the two having had a relationship. I think it’s one of the all-time great indie break-up songs and it foreshadows the shift Sleater-Kinney would make on their next album (“The Hot Rock”) into more personal territory instead of rousing, occasionally feminist anthems.
I’ve always thought that all-female bands occupied a strange place in music, which might be why I’m so fascinated by them. The female listeners they’re often trying to inspire often just listen to sensitive guys strumming on guitar, while a lot of male listeners look up to male rock idols in order to seem “manly.” The band seemed to channel a lot of those concepts into meta songs about being in a band, like the infectious “Words and Guitar.”
The band’s greatness has eventually caused me to dub something called “The Sleater-Kinney Effect”, based on how lame the band is able to make other artists (especially their male counterparts) sound after listening to them. The effect becomes even more pronounced through time, as 90’s guitar rock went by the wayside and Sleater-Kinney towered over unoriginal post-punk bands and wimpy indie pop in the first half of the 2000s. In 1997 things probably felt the same way, as Dig Me Out provided a jolt of legitimate female empowerment at the height of the Spice Girls “girl power” movement, and surely inspired many women (including one of my favorite current artists, Marnie Stern) to pick up a guitar.
Despite how convinced I am that they’re one of the best bands ever, I’ve come to accept that Sleater-Kinney is a love-it or hate-it proposition. Tucker’s vocals are difficult on the ears a lot of listeners and a lot of people are put off by the band’s apparent feminist sloganeering. At the same time, the idea of listening to Dig Me Out and not being inspired by the passion put into each song is foreign to me, even as a guy who isn’t really the target audience. More than any other band, I feel like people that love Sleater-Kinney “get it” on a level beyond typical music listeners.