A breakthrough album fifteen years in the making . . . the culmination of a long road that wound and unwound several times, snaking off in a myriad of directions . . . a journey of starts and stops that led at least one member to believe “that I’d misspent my youth in a crap retro band when I could have had a proper job.”
Fortunately for posterity, Russell Senior and the other members of Pulp hung in there long enough for the breaks to finally fall their way. The Pulp before His ‘N’ Hers showed flashes of brilliance but also a stubborn inconsistency that cooled major label interest. Two years prior to the album’s release, Pulp finally revealed indications of a signature sound and style in the form of a couple of well-received singles that caught the attention of Island Records, giving the band the opportunity to reach a wider audience—an opportunity multiplied to the nth degree by their good fortune to have stumbled onto the emerging Britpop scene.
The primary weakness of His ‘N’ Hers (as noted in my review of Different Class) is technical—the mix isn’t clean enough to properly separate Jarvis Cocker’s voice and give it the clarity it deserves. A good set of headphones pretty much resolves that problem, allowing the listener to thoroughly enjoy Cocker’s witty tales and keen insight into socio-cultural dynamics. The compositions on His ‘N’ Hers feel more disciplined and intentional than their earlier work, and though the album still retains some of the synth pop/dance sound that marked Separations, there is greater integration of keyboards, guitar and bass to balance things out and give the music more muscle.
“Joyriders” is a composition combining two distinct moods, one in the verses and one in the bridge. I’d characterize the verse mood as “drunkenly playful with underlying tension,” largely formed by Steve Mackey’s growling bass and Nick Banks’ loose drumming. Here Jarvis answers the age-old question, “What do teenage boys do when puberty’s flood of testosterone disables brain cell development?” “Stupid shit,” responds Mr. Cocker, albeit in more insightful language:
We can’t help it, we’re so thick we can’t think,
Can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink.
Oh, and we like women;
“Up the women” we say,
And if we get lucky,
We might even meet some one day.
Oh you, you in the Jesus sandals,
Wouldn’t you like to come
Over and watch some vandals smashing up someone’s home?
If I didn’t know that this song was written when the Internet was still in its infancy, I would have assumed that the song was about incels, those “involuntary celibates” who inhabit an ugly corner of cyberspace where discussion is “often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity and self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people (Wikipedia).” While we may laugh at the punch line, “And if we get lucky/We might even meet some one day,” boys like those depicted here and in the incel community embrace their toxic masculinity, representing a real danger to the social fabric.
That danger is expressed best in the music of the bridge, which follows an abrupt halt to the driving music of the verses. Though Pulp has slowed the tempo and adjusted the chord pattern, what’s most important from a compositional perspective is what they didn’t change—the general chord structure of opening with a C major chord while ending with the slightly-off B major chord, one long half-step away from resolution. The tension created by that out-of-place chord is tripled in the various recitations of the bridge, forming moments like those scenes in horror flicks when instead of running away from danger, the dumb ass heads straight for the closed door. Things get really creepy in the last go-round when Jarvis whispers the first two lines then lowers his voice on the truncated closing line (I love Candida Doyle’s eerie piano sequence here). The exhibitionist phrase “don’t you want to come and see?” is gone, placing all the focus on the tragedy:
Mister, we just want your car,
‘Cause we’re taking a girl to the reservoir.
Oh, all the papers say,
It’s a tragedy
We’re not sure what kind of tragedy occurred at one of the many reservoirs surrounding Sheffield, but rape and/or murder would be a safe bet. “Joyriders” may have seemed an odd choice for an opening number, but we live in a world where horror films featuring gruesome murders qualify as “camp” and unspeakable crimes sell newspapers and increase ratings. I hope that more than a few listeners were able to get past the sensationalistic aspects of the song and really take in the more serious underlying message.
Jarvis Cocker offered us two interpretational paths to “Lipgloss,” the first single released from the album. The cheekier comment (“‘Lipgloss’ was specifically about social skills going rusty. That and the fear of large shopping malls like Meadowhall in Sheffield”) isn’t much help. The more sober and meaningful observation is found in Mark Sturdy’s Truth and Beauty: The Story of Pulp:
The title came from a story I heard about an anorexic girl who used to eat only lipgloss. And the rest of the song—about a girl who has her self-confidence bashed down by a bad relationship—is based on someone I know. I think it’s important to express those stories so that victims know they’re not the only ones suffering.
The funny thing about “Lipgloss” is that the music supports the cheekier comment with its almost carnival-like synth-heavy instrumentation creating a devil-may-care, whirling effect. By contrast, the lyrics support Cocker’s more sober and empathetic translation:
And you feel such a fool,
For laughing at bad jokes,
And putting up with all of his friends,
And kissing in public.
What are they gonna say when they run into you again?
That your stomach looks bigger and your hair is a mess,
And your eyes are just holes in your face.
And it rains every day,
And when it doesn’t,
The sun makes you feel worse anyway.
He changed his mind last Monday,
Now you’ve gotta leave by Sunday, yeah.
(Chorus) You’ve lost your lipgloss honey, oh yeah.
Now nothing you do can turn him on,
You had it once and now its gone.
Mark Sturdy saw the contrast differently: “. . . the thrilling, accusatory attack of the verses leads to a chorus that’s a bit over-poppy.” I don’t find the verses “thrilling” in the least—this girl is going through the trauma that always follows a woman’s attempt to base her self-worth on her ability to please a man. The fragility of her ego is highlighted by the not uncommon belief among women that beauty products are essential to attracting men and achieving social acceptance. Her story isn’t thrilling—when these façades collapse, it’s fucking embarrassing and painful. To my ears, the jarring conflict between music and lyrics reflects the jarring conflict between the real self and the fake self we present to the world in our pathetic search for validation from others.
“Acrylic Afternoons” is one of those peek-behind-the-curtains songs that would become a Jarvis Cocker specialty. Here he eschews the role of revenge-seeking voyeur he would play so well in “I Spy,” instead becoming an active participant in the naughty goings-on of the neighborhood:
Can I stay here,
Lying under the table together with you now?
Can I hold you?
Forever in acrylic afternoons
I want to hold you tight
Whilst children play outside
And wait for their mothers to finish with lovers
And call them inside for their tea.
It’s obvious he cherishes his role as lover as well as the delicious secrecy attached to an adulterous afternoon fuck, every sensation seared in his memory—and those impressions are quite poetic:
On a pink quilted eiderdown,
I want to pull your knickers down.
Net curtains blow slightly in the breeze.
Lemonade light filtering through the trees.
It’s so soft and it’s warm.
Just another cup of tea please (one lump thanks).
My only frustration with the song is I wanted more detail as to how he got her out of the green jumper and then from the settee to the floor and under the table. I’m envisioning some kind of “tumble to the ground” moment as in “I Think We’re Alone Now,” but I would have preferred the graphic specifics. Speaking of old songs from the 60’s, a comparison of “Acrylic Afternoons” to the Goffin-King creation “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is illuminating. Mickey Dolenz competently rattled off a stream of superficial suburban stereotypes (how’s that for alliteration?), but for all we know, mom was in the master bedroom banging her teenage son’s best friend while dad was busy slathering on the barbecue sauce. The people who live in Pleasant Valley are caricatures; the lovers in “Acrylic Afternoons” are delightfully wicked human beings forced into secrecy because of social and religious conventions. Evil they may be, but I like them a whole lot better.
Reprising his role as defender-savior of women in shitty relationships, Jarvis urges an unnamed woman to dump her controlling boyfriend in “Have You Seen Her Lately?” While I appreciate the sentiments, this song never really comes together musically or lyrically—the supporting music is too grand in the disco sense of the word and the lyrics lack the incisive wit of “Lipgloss.” To my ears, the arrangement resembles an update of a 60’s Walker Brothers number, so perhaps Jarvis’ admiration of Scott Walker got the best of him here.
Though the guitar duet featured in “Babies” is played by Cocker and Russell Senior, the chords originated with drummer Nick Banks, who was messing around with a guitar during a rehearsal break and strummed a chord combination he identified as “one of them is G, no idea what the other one is” (a Dmaj7, for the record). The combination caught Jarvis Cocker’s ear and “Literally 20 minutes after I’d played those first two chords, we had the entire song, basically.” As would later happen with “Common People” there was some initial squeamishness about “poppiness,” but fortunately for posterity, everyone got over it and a Pulp classic was born. Released as a single in 1992 and virtually ignored, “Babies” reappeared on His ‘N’ Hers and as an EP single that made the UK Top 20.
The arpeggiated chord combination and Russell Senior’s main guitar riff are irresistibly catchy, especially when Nick and Mark Webber kick in with the eminently danceable beat. If you can’t break into a smile during the instrumental intro to “Babies,” you’re either dead or an artistic snob of the highest order (pretty much the same thing). POPPY DOES NOT ALWAYS EQUATE TO LACKING SUBSTANCE. In this case, the lyrics are anything but poppy, for just like the legendary Cole Porter, Jarvis Cocker had the ability to imbue his stories-in-song with both wit and insight.
According to Flavorwire, Jarvis told the audience at Radio City Music Hall “that the song was essentially autobiographical” (although only he knows exactly how much is true).” I can certainly see him as a teen sitting in the hallway with his wannabe girlfriend suppressing giggles as they surreptitiously listened to the girl’s elder sister banging one of apparently many boys she lured to her bedroom. I can also believe that the experience was just an unsatisfying teaser for him and that of course he “wanted more”:
I wanted to see as well as hear,
And so I hid inside her wardrobe.
And she came ’round four,
And she was with some kid called David,
From the garage up the road.
I listened outside I heard her.
If that elder teenage sister was already fucking mechanics, I can guarantee you that she grew up and became an extremely successful dominatrix.
The chorus temporarily interrupts the tale to provide keen insight into the emotional stew of a pubescent teenager on libidinal overload. He simply doesn’t have the words to describe exactly what he’s feeling, so he resorts to a combination of extreme convention and oops-I-didn’t-really-mean-that:
Oh I want to take you home.
I want to give you children.
You might be my girlfriend, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Uh, you got things a little backwards there, dude. You better pray that daddy doesn’t own a shotgun.
The stud of the future doesn’t share his closeted escapade with the girl he intends to fill with babies, but allegedly follows her as she pops into the home of another guy “when his mum and dad were gone.” He claims he heard them laughing, but I think this entire passage is something he made up to provide justification for his closing act of bonking the sister (definitely NOT autobiographical, as Cocker didn’t wet his whistle until he was 19):
We were on the bed when you came home,
I heard you stop outside the door.
I know you won’t believe it’s true,
I only went with her ’cause she looks like you, my God!
That is the ultimate lame excuse—but so very, very true to life. Cocker’s narration is positively brilliant, adjusting his phrasing to express the range of pubescent emotion: embarrassment, denial, misdirected passion and the pathetic guilt of an unpracticed liar. Russell Senior is marvelous on guitar, offering up a varied mix of counterpoints in both the uptempo and quiet passages, and Candida’s multi-pronged keyboard contributions add to the theatre of it all.
The brilliance of “Babies” is sadly missing from the way-too-long “She’s a Lady,” and its resemblance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” doesn’t qualify as a tribute. I can definitely do without “Happy Endings,” a sort of torch song about a failed affair that doesn’t live up to its promise because it never had a promise to begin with.
There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding “Do You Remember the First Time?” largely due to the promotional strategy used to hawk the single. Let’s be clear: the song has little to do with Jarvis Cocker losing his virginity—it’s about a man expressing his frustration that his lover chooses to maintain a sexual relationship with another man. It’s possible that the woman in question was also his initial experience in the sack, but the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous on that score. To promote the song, Cocker came up with the idea of shooting a video filled with various British luminaries recalling their first-time fuck experiences, so a lot of people assumed that the song also dealt with that rite of passage.
Like most first-time bangs, the video is painfully anti-climactic and I can’t believe that anyone who managed to get through all twenty-six minutes of it rushed out and bought the single. The dullness of the film is understandable: the first time is usually a very awkward experience largely because we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, and recalling our incompetence isn’t a very pleasant trip down memory lane. I wrote about my first time in my four-part tale of my sexual development (since removed from the blog):
I had my first fuck the summer I turned fourteen. I decided on a guy I knew from school and invited him over to the house one summer day when my parents were at work. He lasted about a minute and a half and I never came close to orgasm. Still, the brief moment of other-worldliness piqued my interest enough to continue my pursuit of erotic pleasure.
The song itself is a showcase for the indirect and snarky communication that accompanies many a secretive affair, where the fundamental dishonesty of the act detracts from its enjoyment. Disappointed that his squeeze has to go home to papa, the narrator takes a few swipes at his rival while indirectly marketing his allegedly superior sexual prowess: “I know you’re gonna let him bore your pants off again” and (the real zinger) “Still you bought a toy that can reach the places he never goes.” There really isn’t much more to the tale than that, though controversy swirled over the line “No, I don’t care if you screw him/Just as long as you save a piece for me.” What’s sad is that the negative reaction to that line in some quarters had more to do with puritanic beliefs that such matters should not be aired in public rather than the more serious implication that the narrator views his lover as nothing more than a piece of ass. Musically, “Do You Remember the First Time?” features marvelously long builds to the repetitions of the chorus and a spirited vocal from Cocker, so I fully understand why it’s earned its status as the opener for Pulp reunion concerts.
I’m not exactly sure what motivated the inclusion of “Pink Glove” on the album, as it virtually repeats the scenario found in “Do You Remember the First Time?” (male competition for pussy) and suffers from muddied production. Even the best set of headphones on the planet won’t help you understand Jarvis Cocker’s muffled and muddled lyrics on “Someone Like the Moon,” and as a song exploring the phenomenon of loneliness, it ain’t exactly “Eleanor Rigby.”
The album proper ends with the largely spoken-word track “David’s Last Summer.” I’m not sure if this David is the same David who slipped it to the elder sister in “Babies,” but if it is, he became a crashing bore in the interlude. Consider this passage:
The room smells faintly of suntan lotion
In the evening sunlight and when you take off your clothes,
You’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini.
And then consider the fact that rather than allowing himself the pleasure of working up a good stiff one and putting it to immediate use, David decides to take the girl swimming. David! Do you know what cold water does to a dick? What the hell is the matter with you? Perhaps David should be forgiven because the iconic Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons” (more popularly known as the “shrinkage episode”) did not air until a month after His ‘N’ Hers hit the shelves.
Fortunately, for me, I bought the album in the Ew-natted Stayts of ‘Merka, so my album closes with the previously-released single “Razzmatazz.” Having been dumped by a girl who wanted to live a more glamorous and showy life, Cocker revels in the schadenfreude occasioned by the girl’s rapid post-relationship decline (Translation: Milk Tray = Box of Cadbury chocolates):
You started getting fatter three weeks after I left you
Now you’re going with some kid who looks like some bad comedian
Are you gonna go out, are you sitting at home eating boxes of Milk Tray?
Watch TV on your own, aren’t you the one with your razzmatazz and your nights on the town?
What makes this terribly bitter song work is Cocker’s full embrace of his bitterness, capturing a moment of sweet revenge that nearly everyone on the planet has experienced at one time or another. Though we may regret those feelings later and hope that we can forget about the experience and move on, we can’t deny that those feelings were real at the time. Cocker was right when he commented on the lyrics (“I don’t think they’re seedy. They’re just true to life”); one of his most endearing qualities is his willingness to talk about the human failings that no one wants to admit.
The music makes for a much stronger closer than “David’s Last Summer,” with its strong forward movement, upbeat tempo and a power-packed rhythm section. Needless to say, Jarvis throws caution to the wind and gives us a bravura performance combing snark and justifiable exasperation.
Though far from perfect, His ‘N” Hers contains more than enough strong material to justify its nomination for the Mercury Prize, though both His ‘N’ Hers and Parklife lost out to the popular dance album Elegant Slumming by the M People. There’s certainly no shame attached to losing to an album featuring Heather Small’s vocals, and Pulp would crush the competition a couple of years later when Different Class took home the gold. I’ve always considered His ‘N’ Hers the album that made Different Class possible, the moment when Pulp worked out most of the kinks and Jarvis Cocker began to receive well-deserved validation for his uniquely honest approach on the subjects of sex, status and adolescence. Validation builds confidence, and on Different Class, Pulp would use that confidence to take their music to another level entirely.
Janet Weiss brought some serious talent with her when she joined Sleater-Kinney, but her suggestion to use The Kink Kontroversy as the template for the cover of Dig Me Out was a stroke of genius.
The Kink Kontroversy is one of the great garage albums of all-time, featuring just-fucking-plug-and-play classics like “Milk Cow Blues,” “Gotta Get the First Plane Home,” and “What’s in Store for Me?” It’s also a transitionary album, with songs like “I’m On an Island” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” forging the path to The Kinks’ Golden Age where Ray Davies expanded his playing field to encompass commentary on socio-cultural themes.
Dig Me Out is also a transitionary album, heralding a shift from the heavy punk orientation of Call the Doctor to a more rock-oriented sound that still retains punk edginess—in essence, garage. Bringing on drummer Janet Weiss, who learned her licks from the great ’60s rock bands and by studying the work of Topper Headon and John Bonham, made that transition possible. Corin Tucker said of Weiss at the time, “Musically, she’s completed our band. She’s become the bottom end and the solidness that we’ve really wanted for our songwriting”. Janet’s versatility would also serve the band well as they further diversified their music over the next two decades.
Corin’s mention of “the bottom end” calls attention to a non-standard feature of Sleater-Kinney: no bass player. As a self-admitted bass whore, I always listen for a tangible bottom in any genre, and until Sleater-Kinney, I always believed that rock without a bass player was an impossibility on the level of trying to fuck George Costanza after his post-dip-in-the-pool shrinkage. Amazingly, Janet’s skills with the kick and the toms and the Brownstein-Tucker complementary guitar approach fill the gap so effectively that there are very few moments on Dig Me Out where I miss the bass. As producer John Goodmanson pointed out, “The awesome thing about having no bass player is you can make the guitars sound as big as you want.” Anyone who has fiddled around with Garage Band knows that the bass is the ultimate space invader, often requiring the engineer to dial down the other instruments so the bass doesn’t sound like a big amorphous blob. The absence of bass allows Sleater-Kinney’s twinned guitarists to let it rip with abandon, giving the music greater emotional intensity.
Another facet of the Sleater-Kinney sound that may catch a novice listener off-guard has to do with Corin Tucker’s lead vocals. Corin has described them as intentionally harsh in order to amplify the urgency of the band’s feminist message; Heather Phares of AllMusic described them as “love-them-or-hate-them-vocals.” Personally, I find her delivery terribly exciting and a perfect match for Carrie Brownstein’s lower register when the two engage in duets, call-and-response or layered vocals. This is going to sound weird, but when I think of a singer whose vocal approach is most similar to Corin Tucker’s, the one who comes to mind is Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops. The Holland-Dozier-Holland team deliberately forced Levi into a range beyond his comfort zone by writing songs for a tenor instead of Levi’s natural baritone; the idea was to give the vocals the urgency of a gospel preacher warning the flock about the danger of sin. Correspondingly, Corin sings at the top of her range to “preach” the band’s woman-empowering gospel with comparable intensity. As Carrie Brownstein explained in her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, the vocal stretch was facilitated by an unusual approach to guitar tuning, one that also served to firm up the bottom:
In Heavens to Betsy, Corin had always tuned her guitar to her own voice. So it was completely arbitrary that when she plugged into a tuner one day in an attempt to coordinate our tuning, her guitar happened to be in C-sharp. We never thought to alter it. It’s one and a half steps below standard tuning, which creates a sourness, a darkness that you have to overcome if you’re going to create something at all harmonious and palatable. So even when we’re getting toward a little bit of catchiness or pop sheen, there’s an underlying bitterness to it. The tuning also forced Corin to sing differently—it pushed her into her higher registers, into a wailing, the outer edges.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (pp. 87-88). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (All quotes below from the book.)
The combination of fiery vocals, a world-class drummer, ripping guitars and palpable emotion made Dig Me Out one of the great kick-ass albums of the ’90s, comparable to the equally relentless performance by Rancid on And Out Comes the Wolves.
Carrie Brownstein captured the essence of “Dig Me Out” thusly: ” . . . those three words could tell you everything you needed to know about the feeling of smallness, of being held back, of such a basic desire to tear even a fraction of light into any form of darkness we’re dealt with.” The metaphor calls out the simple fact that the patriarchy has systematically buried women along with the right to manifest their full potential for millennia, assigning them the limited roles of caretaker, baby production machine and sex dispenser. Despite laws in most civilized countries designed to grant women equality, the habits and stereotypes of oppression still hold sway, and that hypocrisy intensifies the “darkness” we experience. Hence, women today live in a space characterized by constant tension, because words rarely turn into tangible deeds—the words say “be who you want to be” but reality slaps us silly for believing in such obvious crap. That kind of stuff gets really old after a while, so when you label a woman as “bitchy,” try to go a step further and appreciate all the things she has to bitch about.
While it may be obvious to even the most blockheaded listener that Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics create tension by challenging our pathetic status quo, “Dig Me Out” is a sterling example of how Sleater-Kinney is one of the best when it comes to creating musical tension. Though none of the members received much in the way of formal musical training (Carrie Brownstein: “I don’t know much theory, I play by instinct and feel, I could probably get schooled by an eight-year-old on tonics and inversions.”), their instincts are musically sophisticated. If you try to look up the chord patterns to Sleater-Kinney songs, you’ll find most of them are expressed in tablature rather than chords. There are chords, of course, usually of the classic rock variety (5th chords with no thirds), but they’re generally relegated to the background to provide a reference point. The emphasis is placed on the second guitar—not a lead guitar in the traditional sense, but a guitar that focuses on notes and “made-up chords” derived more from the feel of the song than musical logic—hence the need for tablature. So—you have a stripped-down chord with one set of notes (or a simple arpeggio), a second guitar playing either made-up chords or arpeggiated notes and (equally important) a singer providing the melody, all conspiring to create tension. The stripped-down chords serve a dual purpose: sometimes they create tension through half-step moves; other times they serve as a basic foundation for the deviations created by the second guitar and singer.
In “Dig Me Out,” the tension from the second guitar is clear from the outset, as Carrie adds a flattened sixth to her made-up chord, causing our ears to tremble in dissonance. Carrie further contributes to tension throughout the song by playing single notes that may be in the key of the chord in question but not in the chord itself (sticking to the B-note when the chord pattern as moved on to C#5, for example). Both Carrie (on guitar) and Corin (on vocals) make frequent use of the tension inherent in the 7th note, a half-step away from the major chord root. This is somewhat unusual in rock, where the tendency is to go for the flattened 7th, the signature note in every major blues scale, while major seventh chords have been used primarily for their softening effect (refer to the Cmaj7 that opens “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” for an example). The tension becomes almost overwhelming in the bridge, where the chords descend by half-steps, Carrie consistently takes advantage of the missing third to wreak havoc on the expected chord content (even shifting to the minor key in the initial descent) and Corin insists on sticking to the F# granted by the opening B5 as the first note in the duplet (two-note series) even when that note has no business being there according to the laws of music.
Well, the guys wrote those laws, too, so fuck it.
The rhythm also alternates between single and double-time, and the sheer speed of the transition would likely befuddle most drummers. Corin and Carrie chose “Dig Me Out” as Janet Weiss’ audition song and, needless to say, she passed both audition and studio take with flying colors. I also love the way Corin leaves it all on the field during the chorus, belting it out like she’s trying to sweep away years of repression and frustration. You can’t find a better supporting argument to make your case for the proposition “Resolved: Girls Can Kick Ass, Too” than “Dig Me Out.”
“One More Hour” confirms that hypothesis and then some. Awkwardly enough, Corin Tucker wrote the song about her breakup with Carrie Brownstein. The history of popular music is full of stories of intra-band intimacy: sometimes it works (Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads); sometimes it doesn’t (Big Deal); sometimes the parties somehow manage to shoulder on (the McVie’s are the most obvious example). According to Carrie, nearly all the songs on Dig Me Out have something to do with her relationship with Corin or the triangle with Corin’s future husband (NOT a ménage-à-trois), but due to superior compartmentalization skills, she remained clueless, focusing on the music rather than the lyrical content.
Thankfully, “One More Hour” isn’t simply a coded message from one ex to another, but a passion-loaded expression of the vulnerability that makes an intimate relationship between two women so beautiful and so potentially painful. Falling in love with anyone always entails risk, but falling in love with a person of the same sex multiplies that risk. First, both parties have to overcome the social programming that stigmatizes homosexual relationships. While attraction to a member of the opposite sex has been normalized and involves few barriers, the most common response of a person experiencing same-sex attraction for the first time (and maybe the second, third and fourth times) is denial, a feeling that “there must be something wrong with me.” The danger of engaging in a same-sex relationship extends beyond the risks involved in any intimate coupling to potential banishment from one’s family and workplace discrimination, which is why non-heterosexuals form supportive, semi-closed communities or choose to keep their inclinations secret. Things get more complicated when you consider that both danger and secrecy carry a certain level of thrill—and it’s doubly crushing when you’ve overcome your denial and made yourself completely vulnerable only to find out that the other party was just using you to get their kicks. That wasn’t the case with Carrie and Corin, but the breakup was still “brutal and heartbreaking,” probably aggravated by the enhanced fragility of the same-sex relationship.
The stage is set for an emotional powerhouse of a song with Carrie’s Devo-reminiscent guitar riff supported by perfect stutter-step drums from Janet and Corin’s screaming high-string two-note chording in the opposite channel. Corin’s vocal tone in the opening verse is packed with a combination of feelings—sadness, regret, bitterness, vulnerability. She puts words to those feelings in the awkwardly-constructed phrases of a break-up, uncomfortably combining resolve and loss:
In one more hour, I will be gone
In one more hour, I’ll leave this room
The dress you wore, the pretty shoes
Are things I left behind for you
As Carrie shifts from riff to double-time rhythmic support in the two-line bridge, we hear Corin beginning to face the loss as she recalls the emotional memory of the connection—the special form of intimacy expressed through deep eye contact:
Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes
Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes
Up until this point, the band has wisely withheld the bottom—wisely because when Corin shifts from the high strings to the low strings, the now booming bass sound heralds the release of deeper, rawer feelings of loss, accompanied by Carrie’s (unconscious) attempts to soothe the pain. That transition is one great rock-and-roll moment:
I needed it (I know, I know, I know)
Oh I needed it (It’s so hard for you to let it go)
I needed it (I know, I know, I know)
Oh I needed it (I never wanted to let it, let it go)
Kudos again to Janet Weiss, whose innate sense of compositional structure tells her exactly when to hold back and when to let it fucking rip.
“Turn It On” is about . . . well, it’s about getting turned on! Duh! This isn’t “turned on” in the Timothy Leary sense of psychedelic drugs and consciousness-raising, this is about the moment of heightened sensuality when the clit starts to get wet and the dick starts to get hard (if applicable). What’s interesting here is that Corin describes one of those relationships where you find your potential squeeze irresistibly attractive but you don’t quite trust them to be real—and you don’t trust yourself not to give in to the temptation:
Why can’t you tell me
Is it worth a fight
Do I sound crazy
Well I just might
Why do your words
Have to ring so false
Why do your eyes
Have to change so much
It’s too warm
Inside your hands
It’s too hard
It’s too good
It’s just that when you touched me
I could not stand up
I fell into
I fell down
Those relatively coherent lyrics are followed by an “oh, fuck it” barrage of “turn it on” and associated mutterings indicating that Corin has decided to let herself go. Go for it, sister! Backed by more of a classic rock arrangement (love the handclaps in the chorus), “Turn It On” is not only validation of the Riot Grrrl principle of refusing to deny female sexuality, but a flat-out gas.
According to Carrie, John Goodmanson used baseball theory to determine the track order: “put your top three batters first.” It certainly worked in terms of the first three cuts, but if you were expecting a grand slam from the cleanup spot, you’re likely to be disappointed. “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” features an intriguing title and not a whole lot else. The vocal duet approach that worked so well on “One More Hour” is a bit of a mess, lacking a clean distinction of roles. The music is more akin to the punk you hear on Call the Doctor, but here the bottom fails to make an appearance to give the song some grounding.
Carrie takes over the lead vocalist role on “Heart Factory,” a dig at one of the cultural beliefs that emerged in the ’90s: the belief that with a few surgical alterations and a fistful of pharmaceuticals you can take control of your life and be the sex machine you’ve always wanted to be. Carrie presents the pro-alteration perspective in the verses, employing an “eventually it will come to this” argument in a flat, slightly sardonic tone:
We’re manufacturing hearts, we’ve got the perfect thing
The word on the street, we’ve got the new love machine
Heart with an on and off switch and a remote control
Now you can program how you feel before you walk out the door . . .
Well you can leave ’em hot and you can leave ’em cold
And you can give ’em what you want, you can get up and go
And you can take your heart out and you can put it back in
I think we found the way to put the fun back in sin
Gee, I think sin is pretty fun as-is.
The ultra-human rejection of becoming an android is found in the chorus, where Corin joins in the fun and delivers the knockout punch over full band power reminiscent of ’70s hard rockers:
Find me out
I’m not just made of parts
Oh you can break right through
This box you put me into
The juxtaposition of quirky and raw power proves to be quite a pleasurable listening experience, each mode serving to strengthen the impact of the other.
“Words and Guitar” celebrates the power of rock itself, distilling the genre down to the basic ingredients and emphasizing the freedom inherent in playing it louder than the authorities would prefer. They’ve sold me on the proposition in the first verse, where Corin and Carrie play call-and-response over a rumbling background deliciously interrupted by stop time segments:
Words and guitar
I got it, words and guitar
I want it, way, way too loud
I got it words and guitar
I want it all
(Can’t take this away from me)
I want it all
(Music is the air I breathe)
I want it
(Can’t take this away from me)
Words and guitar
Corin’s lead vocal on the verses is powerful and phonetically precise at the same time, not an easy feat when you’re singing at high speed—I love the clarity and syncopation of the lines that lead the second verse–“Take-take the noise in my head.” The band shifts out of bash mode for the bridges, with Janet shifting from toms to snare-and-cymbals and Carrie playing a lovely arpeggiated riff. Corin’s vocal in this passage absolutely melts me, especially when she uses the 7th note to create an extended moment of tension before resolution:
I dream of quiet songs
I hear the silky sounds
Hush, hush and rock
Oh give me pretty song
Oh let me have that sound
Most critical interpretations have focused on the power the women feel now that they have the privilege of immersing themselves in rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t disagree with that perception, but it should be noted that “I got it’ has a double meaning—it expresses “this is mine now, fuck yeah” but also serves as a reminder that rock is better when you stick to the basics—words and guitar. Those basics have been grounded in rock mythology almost from its inception, as the picture of Elvis singing with all his might while holding that big fat acoustic guitar on the cover of his first album so beautifully demonstrates.
“It’s Enough” continues the celebration of rock ‘n’ roll with foot-to-the-floor full-throttle explosiveness that wraps up in a punk-friendly one minute and forty-seven seconds. When Corin ends the song with the line, “I make, I make, I make . . . rock ‘n’ roll,” it feels like both a statement of liberation and a well-deserved pat on the back—i. e., “Hey! We’re pretty good at this rock ‘n’ roll thing.” Expanding beyond punk dogmatism and into the more flexible field of rock ‘n’ roll created new avenues for self-expression and the opportunity to reach a wider audience. There is no way in hell Sleater-Kinney would have lasted as long as they have (going on twenty-five years, minus a six-year hiatus) if they hadn’t extended their musical reach.
They certainly branched out with “Little Babies,” with its fanciful “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do” chorus closer to The Go-Go’s than Wendy O. Williams. I’ve always believed that punk had more to do with attitude than short high-speed songs loaded with distortion (as London Calling so conclusively proved). The flat tone in Corin’s and Carrie’s voices on that chorus definitely has a Shangri-Las edge to it, so it sounds a lot tougher than it appears on paper.
As for content, it is entirely logical to assume that “Little Babies” is about motherhood:
I’m the water, I’m the dishes, I’m the soap
I will comfort, make you clean and help you cope
When you’re tired feeling helpless come inside I am the shelter
And then when you’re feeling better I’ll watch you go
Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do
All the little babies go oh oh I want to
Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum yeah
Rock the little babies with one two three
Are you hungry? Did you eat before the show?
I peeled potatoes, set the table, washed the floor
I know the others treat you rough and when you know you’ve had enough
You’ll come and see me ‘cos you know I’m always here
Anyone with a modicum of cultural sophistication who reads those lyrics is likely to respond, “Oh yeah! That’s Harriet Nelson! Ricky must be playing at the sock hop tonight!” And you’d be 100% right and 100% wrong at the same time. You’re correct—it’s a depiction of mom-taking-care-of-family. Now take it one step further and imagine that everyone in the patriarchy is programmed to believe in the sacred formula: woman = mother.
“Little Babies” is a song that sounds like it’s about the fans, and maybe it is. But later I realized that it was probably also about me, some confluence of Corin’s caretaking role toward both me and the audience, feeling taken for granted and misunderstood by both. The role of a woman onstage is often indistinct from her role offstage—pleasing, appeasing, striking some balance between larger-than-life and iconic with approachable, likable, and down-to-earth, the fans like gaping mouths, hungry for more of you.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (p. 138). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Hmm. I understand the perception, and it may have been true in Corin’s case, but I can’t imagine anyone perceiving Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline as “caretakers.” It’s also obvious that while male rock stars may not serve as caretakers, they do provide a convenient object for crazed fans who identify with them because those fans have no life of their own. But while I think Carrie was painting with too broad a brush, the expectation of women to be caretakers is baked into our cultural norms, and it remains something that women still have to deal with.
All I know is this: If I had a husband who came home one day and said, “Make me a sandwich,” those would be the last words he would ever utter on this mortal plane.
The girls hit the accelerator again—this time, literally—with “Not What You Want.” Corin gives us another strong performance here, with her “foot on the floor/go eighty, ninety-five, maybe more.” What happened is she had the urge to get the hell out and go wherever, grabbed a bloke named Johnny, ordered him to get his car so they could hit the road, then seems to ignore his apparently genuine concern (“Tell me baby, what’s wrong?”). She seems to respond with something likely to go over poor Johnny’s head—“It’s not what you want/It’s everything”—but it’s also possible that she’s talking to herself. Either way the message is: “Johnny, sweetie, don’t think sex is going to solve this. This has nothing to do with what I want—it’s this whole goddamned fucked-up world.” That’s a very common sentiment today—few of us seem to know what might make us happy, but even if we had whatever that thing is, the noise that surrounds us makes it impossible to appreciate the gift. Corin is reacting to the modern low-grade fever that never seems to go away. In keeping with the enormity of the angst attached to such a situation, the band expresses the depth of the frustration by leaving it all on the playing field. In addition to the sheer power of the song, I love the way Janet Weiss handles the cymbals, giving us a beautiful balance between shimmer and crash.
The closest thing to a ballad on Dig Me Out is “Buy Her Candy,” where Corin’s lovely vibrato emerges with greater clarity than it does in the harder songs. The guitar duet here is simple but effective, with Corin’s arpeggio complementing the melody and Carrie’s precisely-picked low notes establishing a tempo that creates the feeling that we’ve entered a realm where time is advancing at a slower pace than the real world. The music provides an effective backdrop for the internal monologue captured in the lyrics, where the narrator fantasizes about their female celebrity crush. It’s revealing that the narrator first describes himself as a nobody before extolling the woman’s virtues; the crucial line “If I buy her candy/Will she know who I am?” captures the pathos inherent in a relationship based on fantasy. Living in a different social strata and unable to make any kind of meaningful connection, the narrator takes comfort in the perception that she is accessible to no one: “She is selfish/She is kind/No one can say/She is mine.” Although they could have rocked all album long as far as I’m concerned, this little break in the action is a compelling experience.
The heat returns in the form of “Things You Say,” an exposé of the human tendency to substitute strategy for authenticity and honest conversation for a script. Corin jumps straight to the point in the first verse, where she attempts to enlighten her partner on the deleterious effects of self re-invention:
You got your words
But they make you stuck
Now you can’t feel
Now you can’t want
It’s just too messy
It’s just too thick
Is it too scary
Or just too real?
Oh, the layers and layers we create to avoid unmasking our true feelings! Corin’s response is found in the chorus, and on the last go-around she appends four lines that answer the scary-or-real question (it’s both) and qualify as Words to Live By for anyone in search of true intimacy:
It is one desire
Burning hot and bright
It could fill the sky
It could fill me up
Worth the trouble
Worth the pain
It is brave to feel
It is brave to be alive
I don’t know why we created a world where simply trying to be who you are qualifies an act of courage, or why we established cultural norms that force people into role-playing, but I’ve always agreed with Blake that the nearly all human problems stem from repressed desire. The music supports the duality presented in the song, with the rhythm choppier in the verses and hard-driving in the chorus. Corin’s tone in the verses is naturally dismissive and impatient, but in the chorus and coda, the purity and strength in her voice is undeniably moving. The only fly in the ointment is the unintelligibility of Carrie’s response vocals, but it’s a relatively minor quibble.
I’ve already noted a sonic connection between Sleater-Kinney and Devo, but “Dance Song ’97” makes it so obvious that even contemporary critics picked up on it. The beat will be familiar to Freedom of Choice fans, as will the thin organ that added a sci-fi feel to “Whip It.” I don’t have a problem with the arrangement, but the lyrical focus on repressed desire was covered far more effectively in “Things You Say” and slotting the two songs back-to-back highlights the weakness of the second. Dig Me Out ends with “Jenny,” a slow, dark grunge number with minimalistic lyrics that qualifies it as a mood song. While the band is tight and Corin’s is as strong as ever, I have to confess that the mood they create reminds me of the way I feel when I’m on the rag—grungy-grumpy-messy-yucky. Chalk up my commentary to intensely personal critical bias and leave it at that.
Sleater-Kinney has continued to produce critically-acclaimed albums over the years, each representing another step in their musical growth. Apparently, their recent collaboration with St. Vincent took things a bit too far for Janet Weiss, who left the band last year. I wasn’t surprised by their embrace of electronics; Kathleen Hanna went there with The Julie Ruin years before. And though the critical reception to The Center Won’t Hold was more mixed than usual, the important point is that after all these years, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein continue to embody artistic integrity. While they conclusively proved that women can rock and with the best of them on Dig Me Out, what’s most important about the album is it was a confidence-building, door-opening experience that resulted in one of the great catalogs of the female experience.