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Sweet and Crunchy 

Sleater-Kinney's punk howls and pop purrs have captured the indie world.

One of the most annoying things that follows Sleater-Kinney around is the labels. The ones that always have to mention that the powerhouse trio from Olympia, Washington, are not only women, they're feminists. Not only that, two of the members used to be an item. Plus, they're a punk band that rocks pretty hard for being, you know, women. Fact is, Sleater-Kinney is one of the best bands making records today--even without that lazy woman-feminist-lesbian-punk tag hounding them.

"It gets frustrating," guitarist Carrie Brownstein says. "Especially if it's used as a way of limiting the scope of our music. Music transcends a lot of categories, and it's true that we are women, we are musicians. You always have a multitude of identities or a way of categorizing the way you are.

"In your daily life, you don't want to prioritize who you are. It doesn't really describe the complexities of who you are and what your music is about. On the other hand, being female is part of our experience, and it's going to end up in our songs. But it's clearly not the only thing."

Indeed. The Hot Rock, their fourth album, follows 1997's pretty-damn-near-brilliant Dig Me Out with another set of songs about growing up in life and in love. And, laced through the guitar assaults and spheres of energy that envelop everything around them, there's a note of (here we go again) feminism spiking Sleater-Kinney's tunes that is a subtle, but still quite clear, presence.

"It's part of our identity, and it's going to be a lens that we can see the world through," Brownstein confirms. "But not every song is going to be about that. Some of our songs clearly come from that perspective, but we're not going to only write about those things, and we don't. It's not a very accurate way of describing our variety and complexity."

Same goes for the punk sticker: "Punk, to some people, is a specific kind of music in terms of sound," she says. "I think indie is a better description of our music, in terms of the philosophy that governs this band. We have elements of punk music and punk ideals, but I don't think we're a punk band."

And it's that indie philosophy that's been with the band since Brownstein and singer/guitarist Corin Tucker formed Sleater-Kinney (which is named after a road that runs in front of their rehearsal studio in Olympia) five years ago. Their self-titled debut album, recorded in Australia while the guitar-slinging duo--there's no bassist in the band--were hanging out Down Under with a drummer named Laura, was released not long after on the American indie labels Chainsaw and Villa Villakula. It's a skeletal work that merely hints at the power that would propel their subsequent recordings.

Their second album, Call the Doctor, introduced the band to its ecstatic legion of fans, both in and out of the music industry, when it was released in 1996. Sleater-Kinney took its show on the road, with a friend named Toni handling drum duty. The Spinal Tap-like frequency with which the band went through drummers during the period (not to mention its penchant for using only first names) made it difficult to concentrate on actually progressing its career as a genuine touring unit. Brownstein and Tucker finally settled on Janet Weiss to pound the skins for them, and soon after her arrival, Sleater-Kinney--with one great album behind them and an even greater one right around the corner--started its climb up the rock and roll stairway.

Dig Me Out, a gutsy culmination of everything Sleater-Kinney had learned the previous few years, slapped Tucker's vibratory howls atop a mountain of guitars. The brevity and might of the songs recalled America's indie scene in its early '80s prime. It was rock and roll not only as a lifestyle, but as a lifesaver. The trio spent most of 1997 and 1998 on the road. They traveled throughout the States and sold out shows; they went to Europe and did the same thing. Dig Me Out is desperate, resonating, and magnificent. The Hot Rock, on the other hand, is its logical, and decidedly more grown-up, progression.

"We wanted to take more time recording and look at each song individually," Brownstein explains. "We sculpted the songs and the textures we had in terms of production, which we never had time to do before. A lot of the differences between Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock is the energy of the record. Dig Me Out has a very condensed, forward-moving energy. The Hot Rock is more dispersed; there's more space and gracefulness in the songs. It takes you on a little more of a winding journey.

"There are songs that are really galvanizing and powerful, but there are other songs that are more subtle. I think this record is more interesting, because there is more of a vastness to it."

That includes a surprisingly touching solo turn by Brownstein (who's always behind Tucker, as Lennon was behind McCartney and vice versa), "The Size of Our Love," which is unlike anything Sleater-Kinney has done. "Before, we would have censored ourselves and said that it was too slow," Brownstein concedes. "Now it definitely fits the mood of the record."

The ferocious energy that fueled Dig Me Out runs with a bit less vigor on The Hot Rock; only the opening "Start Together" fits the Sleater-Kinney pattern. On the album's best songs (like the title track, "Banned From the End of the World," "Don't Talk Like," and "A Quarter to Three"), Tucker's caterwauling is restrained, requiring her to sing with more conventional passion than she has in the past. And there's an increased focus on the pop elements that have always bubbled on the surface of their finest tunes. The Hot Rock's first single, "Get Up," winds through a tunnel of narrative exposition that ultimately comes crashing down into a pile of poppy rubble that's as jagged as it is inviting. Which may be Sleater-Kinney's absolute appeal: the ability to be sweet beneath the crunchy exterior.

Brownstein says that the band doesn't take any of this--the critics' accolades, the dedicated fans, its status as the darlings of the indie universe--for granted. "There's definitely an element of luck and timing involved," she says. "There are a lot of great bands that don't get written about, just because of the sheer volume of music that gets put out. It's really saturated right now, and there isn't room to write about everyone. So, it's a bit surprising, but it's quite separate from our daily lives and what is important to us, like writing the songs and playing the shows." (Alas, a leg of Sleater-Kinney's current tour--including a March 25 visit to the Grog Shop--was canceled when Brownstein injured her back.)

And indie grrrls they are, indie grrrls they'll stay. At least for now. Brownstein says the majors came a-knockin' right after Call the Doctor was released, but the band used them only as "a learning resource." They won't talk to majors now (they're happy with hometown label Kill Rock Stars, which has released the past two albums), but Brownstein admits they are keeping an open mind about the matter (i.e., no indier-than-thou attitude in the Sleater-Kinney camp).

"Before we made a decision, we wanted to learn about the industry from a different perspective," she explains. "We know a lot about the independent music industry, but not so much about the corporate one. We talked to people and assessed their philosophy, where our band fit into their label roster. It felt very inorganic and unnatural, and it would really uproot us from our community, which is a very important aspect of who we are."

Brownstein says that, when the band started, there was no set vision or ideology. And many of the things they stood for then are just as important now--the indie label, the all-ages shows. "That's just part of who we are," she says. "Some things have changed, but the fundamental things are still there.

"We want to continue making powerful and interesting records. We always try to challenge ourselves. I'm glad we haven't made the same record twice. And we want to stay friends. That's a big part of this band. There are elements in this band that are so fulfilling and enjoyable that we just want them to stay that way. Our personal happiness is in the large goal, but part of that fulfillment is making good music together.

More by Michael Gallucci

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