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.
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.