Sleater-Kinney – Call the Doctor – Classic Music Review
The bad news: During my research of Call the Doctor I encountered several reviews written by men that I found quite annoying and two in particular that I found absolutely infuriating.
The best news: I can blame my fury on my father! Suck it up, Dad!
The story begins long, long ago in the midst of the Nixon-Ford recession in a small flat bordering the Mission District and Noe Valley, where my parents were completing their tax returns at a small kitchen table they’d found at a yard sale. Due to the collapsing job market, my father had only managed to turn his MSW into a half-time job with the City while my mother had become an early gig worker, taking on several short-term language translation assignments. When my father totaled up their incomes, he was dismayed to find out that his wife made more money than he did—and even more dismayed that it bothered him.
Since my parents agreed to never keep secrets from one another, he shared his feelings with my mother. “Get over it,” she advised. “But how do I do that?” “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” Her response may seem flippant, but she felt strongly that she was not in a position to cure him of his sexism. He had a problem with all women; working things out with just one woman wouldn’t address the underlying issues.
He read some feminist literature but nothing that really pierced his heart and soul. Sometime during this period, he heard about a course in Women’s Studies at San Francisco State, one of the very few courses on the topic available back then. Not wanting to go through the whole admissions process, he decided he would unofficially audit the class and hope that the professor wouldn’t notice.
He really didn’t need to worry. Except for a couple of sneers on the first day of class, the professor and his fellow students—all women—completely ignored him. At no point during the semester did anyone in the class speak to him, ask him a question or acknowledge his existence. As far as they were concerned, he was a non-person. Every week for sixteen weeks he caught a Muni bus to SF State, slipped into one of the chairs in the back of the class and sat there in virtual isolation. I asked Dad to summarize his experience for me in an e-mail:
“The atmosphere wasn’t just charged. It was like the aftermath of an earthquake and I was surrounded by crackling power lines. There were about thirty women in the room and their collective anger was off the charts. The professor ran the class as if it were group therapy, which was a good call on her part because those women needed to vent and no power on earth was going to stop them. There was very little in the way of formal teaching; either the professor or a student would raise an issue from one of the readings or bring up something that happened in the news and for the next hour it was barely controlled chaos. Everybody had an opinion and they expressed those opinions with force and rage. Most of their anger was directed at men, so yeah, it was very uncomfortable, but it was kind of like the penance I had to go through to get my head straight (once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I guess). Since as far as they were concerned I didn’t exist, all I could do is just shut up and listen. I finally came to understand the extent of the oppression women experience every day, how that oppression feels, the pain in being less than a person and how I had taken advantage of my entitlement as a man in dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The stories they told were deeply personal, so it was impossible to lump them all together and demean their experience by putting it into a convenient category. But the thing I remember most is the anger. It wasn’t irrational anger but rightfully held anger. I had to work really hard to not get defensive or take their anger personally and really listen to their stories so I could face what I had done to fuel similar anger in the women in my life. Listening to those women was a cleansing experience like no other: a cleansing experience where you use Lava soap on the skin, under the skin and into the soul. Man, there was a lot of bullshit in there I had to clean out.”
Confirmation that my father’s enlightenment was permanent came later from my high school girlfriends, who would ask me, “How come your dad isn’t an asshole like all the other fathers?” Those other dads treated teenage girls like tempting jail bait or dumb shits who weren’t worth the time and trouble. My dad talked to them the way he always talked to me—like an adult. He engaged them in conversation, took their opinions seriously and never came close to expressing anything in the vein of “you’ll grow up someday and see things differently.” His experience had made him aware that women go through their whole lives having to deal with men who feel they have the god-given right to dismiss what women have to say, so he did what he could to make each of my girlfriends feel that they mattered.
Moving on to compare-and-contrast, allow me to share a couple of snippets from the criticism that pissed me off. The first comes from Jason Ankeny of AllMusic:
Sleater-Kinney’s masterful sophomore effort Call the Doctor fulfills all the promise of the group’s debut and more, forging taut melodicism and jaw-dropping sonic complexity out of barbed-wire emotional potency. The emergence of Carrie Brownstein as an equal shareholder in Corin Tucker’s vision is the key — her four contributions (particularly “Stay Where You Are” and “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”) are stellar, while her harmonies complete Tucker’s equally superb lead turns by reading between the lines to verbalize the naked aggression at the core of the songs’ polemic power. Forget the riot grrrl implications inherent in the trio’s music — Call the Doctor is pure, undiluted punk, and it’s brilliant.
Translation: Pay no attention to their hopeless effort to dismantle the patriarchy or the ludicrous attempt to achieve true equality, because we all know it ain’t going to happen. Instead, enjoy the meaningless drivel I’ve written that offers no insight whatsoever but reflects my sacred entitlement as a man to come up with clever and empty phrases like “taut melodicism” and “jaw-dropping sonic complexity” and get paid for it!
The second comes from a retrospective review from Tom Breihand of Stereogum:
More important than all that, though, it’s the first album that really captured Sleater-Kinney’s full fury. If you were so inclined, you could hear the band’s entire career as the slow refinement of what Tucker did on Call The Doctor . . . hearing Call The Doctor for the first time, it was clear that Tucker was the force powering this whole enterprise, at least early on. Her second “damn you!” on the intro of the breakneck “Little Mouth” might still be the single most vital moment in the band’s entire career.
Translation: You can save yourself a lot of time and energy and learn everything you need to know about Sleater-Kinney by ignoring Carrie Brownstein and playing a two-second clip of Corin Tucker almost kinda sorta swearing. Play the clip for your friends and dazzle them with your supernatural insight! And don’t forget to give me credit for my ability to distill an entire body of work into two tiny words! Female fury! The ultimate in titillation!
There’s a word on the tip of my tongue, damn it . . . ah, there it is. . . blockheads. Both of these guys thought that because they identified female anger that they understood female anger. The truth is they felt so uncomfortable with female anger that they either had to redefine it (Ankeny) or turn it into a sound byte (Breihand). They can hide behind “critical detachment” all they want, but in doing so they trivialize the messages in the music, displaying that special arrogance of the entitled male that allows him to ignore anything and everything a woman has to say. I’ve yet to read a review of any Sleater-Kinney album written by a man where the writer pushes past that discomfort and engages in even the slightest bit of introspection concerning their role in propagating female oppression—and that really pisses me off.
Just my luck to wind up with an enlightened father who imbued me with unreasonably high standards for male behavior.
Dad, it’s all your fault! Damn you!
As both Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were playing in other bands at the time, Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous debut album was more of a side project than a full-on artistic commitment. After those other bands decided to call it a day, Sleater-Kinney became the pair’s primary artistic outlet, making Call the Doctor their first “real” album. The drums on the album were handled by a talented Australian multi-instrumentalist by the name of Laura (sometimes Lora) Macfarlane, who also played guitar on one track and contributed a few vocals. While Macfarlane’s drumming on Call the Doctor was adequate, the truth was she needed more room to display her diverse talents and Sleater-Kinney needed a drummer with a broader repertoire of chops. Macfarlane would leave the band immediately after the recording and go on to lead the indie band ninetynine (no caps), giving Corin and Carrie the opportunity to bring the supremely talented Janet Weiss into the fold.
The band on Call the Doctor reflects the punk stylings of many a riot grrrl band, relying heavily on raw energy to get their message across. The sound is somewhat rougher than what you hear on Dig Me Out, but the sense of urgency and excitement generally compensates for the lack of polish. What separated Sleater-Kinney from the punks and other riot grrrl bands was the mind meld that developed between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein that spawned their innovative approach to guitar and vocals:
Despite the no-frills approach to recording, the songwriting on Call the Doctor brought in characteristics that came to define our sound. On the title track, Corin and I each sang a melody on the chorus. She was louder than me, so her vocal was the lead by default, but we never really considered one a background part to the other. It was a conversation we were having: she had her perspective and I had mine. Or I was emphasizing her point, retelling it even as I was singing along with her. And our guitars did the same thing, augmenting and counteracting each other. We would get to the chorus, and intuitively you’d think this is the time for us to all sing together, that there should be a cohesion, but instead we would split apart. It was almost an anti-chorus. We weren’t trying to form a solidarity with anyone but ourselves. Could you sing along to Sleater-Kinney? Sometimes. But we’d just as likely shout over you. And good luck trying to sing along with Corin. Trust me, I know. It’s nearly impossible. As a listener you have to decide what to follow in the song, which vocal, which guitar.
This way of writing and of singing was something we tacitly understood. We never discussed it; we never mentioned countermelodies. We didn’t want to sing harmonies. Our songs weren’t pretty, nor was our style of singing. It sounded scarier to not sing together, rarely allowing the listener to settle into the music. Everything inside the songs was constantly on the verge of breaking apart—Corin’s voice, the narrative, the guitars, so few moments provided any respite at all. If we did sing together on the chorus, it was only after a strange, uncomfortable verse. Yet the result was forceful; it sounded like a tightly bound entity, fragments clinging to each other for dear life—if you pulled one thing apart, it wouldn’t even sound like a real song. It was a junkyard come to life.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (pp. 107-108). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Later in that chapter, Carrie described the experience of listening to the playback of the entire album for the first time as “it felt like anthems we’d written for ourselves.” Retrospective reviews of Call the Doctor tend to overrate the album (as retrospective reviews often do); like many a maiden effort, Call the Doctor is a mix of strong and weak material, just as one would expect from a band still in search of an identity. “Call the Doctor was not our best record, but it was the last one written before any sense of external identity or pressure,” wrote Carrie. That freedom from expectations allowed them to establish the fundamental components of what would become their signature sound, so in that sense, Call the Doctor has to be qualified as a successful effort.
“Call the Doctor,” with its non-standard structure of Verse Form A1-Verse Form B1-Verse Form A2-Verse Form B2-Chorus-Verse Form B3, is most anthemic in Verse Form A, where Corin addresses the systemic threats. The opening verse (A1) certainly draws distinct battle lines in the struggle against a patriarchy that considers women just another piece of property—lumps of clay suitable for mythological molding:
They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you
Corin delivers the first two lines over a dissonant grunge guitar duet in a tone of bitter sarcasm, playing off the traditional notions that women are expected to be sugar and spice and everything nice and “above reproach.” For the third line, Corin raises her voice and shifts her tone to impart the dangers inherent in dignifying women (putting them on a pedestal where they can do no harm and have no life), analyzing women (because men know best) and finally, terrorizing women (which may mean rape, domestic abuse or simply denying women the right to choose how to live their lives). The über-message is that women are creatures who need men to mold them into shape, changelings who can be transformed from virgins to whores on command. The use of the word “they” identifies the enemy as the collective weight of rules and restrictions summarized in the word “patriarchy,” and not “all men.” The written record shows that Corin and Carrie were not “man-haters,” but implacable foes of the patriarchy and the unreasonable roles assigned to both genders.
The first appearance of Verse Form B follows; these verses are marked by Corin and Carrie alternating lines (what Carrie referred to as an anti-chorus). The impact of this form is somewhat diminished on Call the Doctor by muddy production that makes it a challenge to make out what Carrie is saying. These B verses are one-sided conversations Corin has with another woman or with three separate women; one could view the progress depicted in the conversations as the growth trajectory of one woman or three women at different levels of development. The variations in each B verse are subtle but loaded with meaning:
- B1: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or shake me/I’m your monster, I’m not like you/All your life is written for you.”
- B2: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or break it/I’m your monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before you.”
- B3: “This is love and you can’t break it/in a formula or make me/I’m no monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before me.“
I can’t help but interpret those lines personally, based on my experience in trying to “feel out” women to learn whether or not they’re interested in woman-to-woman sex. B1 is absolutely hopeless; she thinks lesbian sex is sinful. Carrie’s response, “I’ll never show you what’s in here” is spot-on. B2 is a woman in denial about her attraction to other women. B3 is on the brink, giving me more confidence that sharing my tendencies won’t freak her out. I would go one step further and announce the discovery of a B4, a woman who is ready to rock but gets turned off when I tell her I’m bisexual.
I can’t begin to describe how happy I feel that I have a regular partner and never have to go through that shit again.
Moving on to Verse A-2, Corin steps out of character and assumes the role of “spokesperson of the patriarchy” in the first two lines, mocking the absurd notions that women are nothing more than baby factories and that to challenge that “truth” is an act of sacrilege.
Your life is good for one thing
You’re messing with what’s sacred
She then returns to the Cassandra role, warning that transforming women into simple beings with limited choices is, ironically, the ultimate act of sterilization:
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you
This brings us to Verse B-2, which ends on Carrie’s sarcastic line, “Call the doctor, miracle—she can talk!” We then hear an interruption in the chord pattern over a drum roll that quickly flings the band into hyperspeed mode where Corin shouts “Call the doctor!” eight times. I interpret the line to mean, “Call the doctor—there’s something wrong with this broad—she can speak her own mind! Oh, the horror!” If you haven’t figured it out by now, I think “Call the Doctor” is an amazing song with exceptional musical and emotional build, and a great way to kick off the album.
“Hubcap” opens with ragged, dissonant guitar and an equally ragged vocal from Corin, as if she’s watching the clock as it creeps towards closing time in the camera shop where she worked. She tries to forestall the boredom by writing on the side, hiding the paper when her boss shows up in his suit and tie. “You’re my co-pilot, not my god pilot,” she says to herself while considering her boss, and though she would love to share his “calm belief” in his work, there’s no question she doesn’t belong there. One of the aspects of Call the Doctor I find appealing is that both Corin and Carrie were still working day jobs to support themselves while hoping the music thing would work out, and the experiences they describe in several of the songs on the album ring true for all of us who have to deal with the ennui of the daily grind.
“Little Mouth” is another such song, and it must have felt quite liberating for Corin to express the rage that burns hot when you’re working a shit job far below your capabilities:
Smile pretty take take the money
You know me well oh don’t you?
Smile pretty take take the money
You know how to sell?
The music captures both the expressed rage in the intense all-hands-on-board bash and the seething rage when they ease up a bit as Corin repeats the phrase “damaged goods.” Carrie wrote about the grim reality of retail in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: “So much of working customer service is about self-erasure, subjugating and then selling yourself in order to sell the product, merging with the commodities until you feel like one. Like many young women, we felt like we were on display.” No wonder Corin’s vocal sounds like she’s millimeters away from her breaking point—but since the song ends with another “Damn you,” we can assume that at least at this point in time, that “Damn you” remained safely inside in her head because she needed the damn job.
Continuing the theme of “self-repression as a survival tactic,” Corin’s opening line in “Anonymous” is “She’s worried, she’s worried, she’s worried she said too much.” It’s pretty obvious that living on the edge has resulted in a full-fledged case of neurosis, as Corin alternates between first-person narrative and an out-of-body experience where she observes her public self with the harsh judgment of a woman confronting her doppelgänger:
Feel safe, inside, inside those well drawn line
Boyfriend, a car, a job, my white girl life
She swallowed a spider to catch, to catch that fly
But I don’t know why, why she swallowed that lie
The music is classic two-chord punk riot with the verses in C# and the chorus in Bbm (allowing for Sleater-Kinney’s drop-down tuning), moving from steady drive in the verses to let-it-the-fuck-out in the chorus. Corin is more than up to the tasks of keeping her voice a couple of notches below manic in the verses and crossing the line into temporary madness in the chorus. At this stage in her life, she has a deep desire for anonymity so she can be “Not enough for you to know/not enough for you to own.” She closes the song by admitting that at present, she hasn’t found a satisfactory solution to her dilemma: “These words are all I have/These words are who I am.” Having gone through a similar experience in my early twenties, I relate more to this song than any of the other songs on the album and find it strangely comforting—I don’t think anyone ever gets their shit together completely, but I know I’m not the ungrounded mess I was back then.
I love the rough guitar duet of “Stay Where You Are,” but find the repeated lyrics a bit dull and inadequate; the theme of identity struggle is addressed much more effectively in “Call the Doctor” and “Anonymous.” What follows is much more interesting, as “Good Things” is the least riot grrrl song of the lot and deals with one of the most common themes in rock: relationship failure. What makes this song stand out is that this particular failure likely involves a homosexual relationship, where the loss of a partner is intensified by the vulnerability you already put on the line when you entered a homosexual relationship in the first place. It may have been more true in the ’90s, but it’s still true today: most people who enter a homosexual relationship begin in the closet, and you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feel especially vulnerable. I certainly felt more vulnerable in the States and had many unpleasant experiences there when my partner and I held hands or kissed in public; in Europe, it’s more common for women to hold hands and walk arm-in-arm, whatever their sexual orientation, so it’s a bit easier . . . but we still have to accept that there are limits when it comes to public displays of affection.
I have to use the qualifier “likely,” for Corin never identifies the gender of the lost partner and, like me, she is bisexual, so anything is possible. I just hear something in her voice that gives me that impression—something I’ve heard in other voices who have ended a relationship with a same-sex partner. The positive aspect of avoiding gender identification is it makes the song universal; everybody can relate to the soul-searching and self-doubt Corin sings with such poignancy:
Try to make it good again
Is it worth it?
Will it make me sick today?
It’s a dumb song
But I’ll write it anyway
It’s an old mistake
But we always make it — why do we?
The hardest part is things already said
Getting better, worse, I cannot tell
Why do good things never wanna stay?
Some things you lose, some things you give away
Though performed with electric guitar in the Sleater-Kinney tradition, “Good Things” is actually quite lovely on acoustic guitar with its pleasant E-C#m-Ab-C#m chord combination (an A major chord is introduced in the transition from verse to chorus to keep things interesting). I love this song so much that I actually took the time to submit a chord correction to Ultimate Guitar—tedious work, but I felt it was worth it.
The most popular song from the album is “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and as is often the case, I’ve found the interpretations in various reviews to be slightly off. I doubt very much that Corin thought she had a shot at becoming the “queen of rock and roll” at the time the song was written—she probably just wanted to put that shopping mall job in the rearview mirror. While she obviously understood the sexual potential of rock star power, her motivations at this moment involved getting a babe to move away from her devotion to male rock stars and love her with the same intense passion she projected onto lifeless posters of Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore:
I wanna be your Thurston Moore
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Wrestle on the bedroom floor
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Always leave you wanting more
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Throw away those old records
Adding squeals in the chorus was an inspired choice—not only for the excitement they bring to the performance but also because they tell us that Sleater-Kinney had “passed the test”:
“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” was a test for ourselves, to see what it felt like to give yourself the smallest amount of power, and to put that power on display, to be unafraid and unafraid of yourself. So in Sleater-Kinney, we sang a lot about a world that we wished we could access without the added explanation or justification. We sang about playing and performing, as if in singing about it, we could really live it, free of judgment or the feeling that we were interlopers.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (p. 110). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
That statement certainly reflects Carrie’s lyrical responses to Corin, indicating she’s moved beyond idol worship and now is starting to think “that could be me up there.”
I swear they’re looking right at me
Push to the front so I can see
It’s what I thought
It’s rock and roll
I love the contrast between the moody verses and the ecstatic chorus, and if there’s one song on Call the Doctor that proves Sleater-Kinney really didn’t need a bass player, it’s this one.
We head back to the mall where Corin is still brooding about her shit job in “Taking Me Home.” The aspect of retail reality that she explores here is pretty straightforward: like the merchandise on the shelves, the sales clerk “merges with the commodities” and finds herself on display for all the horny guys who assume that it’s okay to hit on the hired help. Corin plays out their mating fantasies to the nth degree, even to the point of imagining marriage:
A dozen red roses
A cute little house
A cheap little ring
The deal is cut, now
She emphatically rejects that alternative reality, in all-caps: NOT FOR SALE/NOT YOUR GIRL/NOT YOUR THING. The music on this one is a bit tiresome, though, weakening the message in the process.
The music is not the problem with “Taste Test,” where the forward drive of the chorus and the clearest double-lead vocals on the album make for some exciting moments. The lyrics, which apparently involve a shaky relationship between two very confused people, simply fail to register on the coherence monitor. The same is true for “My Stuff,” a dark, grungy tune best captured in the line: “Such an easy thought and now I had it but I lost it.”
Things get a whole lot better with the blatantly sexual (yay!) “I’m Not Waiting.” Songs celebrating the delights of lesbian sex were extremely rare in the mid-90s but Corin holds nothing back—her voice is drenched with the erotic tension of a bitch in heat, her words completely unapologetic and free of shame:
I’m not waiting
‘Till I grow up
To be a woman
To be a woman
Honey baby sweetness darling
I’m your little girl
Your words are sticky, stupid
Running down my legs
Laura Macfarlane’s drumming is excellent here, punctuating the simmering choruses with the primitive sound of tom-toms and going full-on nasty in the verses. The second verse finds Corin in a particularly naughty frame-of-mind as she commands her partner to fulfill a specific fantasy, her voice made edgier through the application of a lo-fi filter:
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit on
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit . . .
The next round of the chorus ends with Corin squeezing every last bit of passion out of the word WOOOOOOOO-MAN, cueing the band to remove all restraints and accelerate to an orgasmic climax. Passion spent, Corin gives us two rounds of “I’m not waiting/’Till I grow up,” affirming her deep and guilt-free satisfaction with the experience of loving another woman.
Call the Doctor closes with a mid-tempo tune from self-confessed hypochondriac Carrie Brownstein, “Heart Attack.” This confessional reveals Carrie’s hyper-awareness of mortality (a subject she would return to in “The Size of Our Love” on The Hot Rock) and her associated fears that “Something’s bound to give me a disease.” What’s important is how her high-strung nature interferes with her chances of connecting with other people:
Stress case undone preplanned no fun
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
High strung let go loss of control
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
Though technically it’s not a fit with the larger themes of Call the Doctor, the willingness to reveal one’s quirks and anxieties has a humanizing effect, ironically minimizing the distance between musician and listener—for we are all mortal and we are all at least a little bit weird.
In parting, I want to share one more review, this one from my bête noire, Robert Christgau, The Dean of American Rock Critics:
Like the blues, punk is a template that shapes young misfits’ sense of themselves, and like the blues it takes many forms. This is a new one, and it’s damn blueslike. Powered by riffs that seem unstoppable even though they’re not very fast, riding melodies whose irresistibility renders them barely less harsh, Corin Tucker’s enormous voice never struggles more inspirationally against the world outside than when it’s facing down the dilemmas of the interpersonal–dilemmas neither eased nor defined by her gender preferences, dilemmas as bound up with family as they are with sex. As partner/rival/Other Carrie Brownstein puts it in an eloquently tongue-tied moment: “It’s just my stuff.” Few if any have played rock’s tension-and-release game for such high stakes–revolution as existentialism, electric roar as acne remedy. They wanna be our Joey Ramone, who can resist that one? But squint at the booklet and you’ll see they also want to be our Thurston Moore. They want it both ways, every which way. And most of the time they get it.
Can anyone tell me what the fuck that man is talking about? Well, at least he was one of two critics (Greil Marcus was the other) who identified Sleater-Kinney as the best rock band in the world, so there’s that. I appreciate the compliment but loathe the use of the superlative—I’ll just say that Sleater-Kinney would indeed become a fabulous rock band and Call the Doctor was the blessed event where they laid the foundation for a truly remarkable journey.