Tag Archives: The Things You Say

Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out – Classic Music Review (Third Wave Series)

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
Tonight

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.

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