One Beat

Band: Sleater-Kinney
Album: One Beat
Best song: “Combat Rock” is brilliant. “Far Away” is relentless.
Worst song: “Pristina” is just OK.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, a lot of musicians did a lot of fund raising. I seem to remember Bruce Springsteen doing a lot of benefit shows. Some bands toured and gave money.

A few bands, though, took to the post-Sept. 11 world in a different way. J. Mascis released Free So Free, touching on politics in way unforeseen in his career to that point. Cat Power — albeit nearly a year and a half later — released You Are Free, her most grown up record to date.

Sleater-Kinney, already an overly political band by way of feminism, took to the studio. And with it, the band put out its best-reviewed album (a 9.1 at Pitchfork!). Examining the full spectrum of the political reality, One Beat takes on George W. Bush, the PATRIOT Act and the feaar that econcompassed the nation in early 2002.

One Beat has requisite S-K landmarks. Carrie Brownstein’s jaunty chanting on “Oh!” echoes the danceable fun of The Hot Rock‘s “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun.” “Sympathy” is quick and jerky, punking around. “Step Aside” is classic feminism rock. And of course, Corin Tucker’s operatic wail, sounding something like a female Bruce Dickinson or Rob Halford.

But what makes One Beat stand out is the complexity the band embraces, both musically and lyrically. Moving away from straight up punk music, the band embraces a new math rock effort while also channeling their inner rock goddesses. Tucker’s and Brownstein’s guitars dance around like a Don Caballero number while turning up the collective volume.

The results are nothing short of epic. “Light Raily Coyote” is the cowboy song on the record, with Tucker describing the Oregon landscape over a constant crescendo of guitars and Janet Weiss’ cymbals. “O2” is an S-K song in Superchunk clothing, with an emoting vocal, a solo-y riff and upbeat rhytymn.

The lyrical complexity isn’t a first for the band, but the confluence of events make for the band’s most compelling words. Tucker spent most of 2001 with her newborn and so was written the emotionally wrought “Far Away.” Behind a railing guitar, the song’s lyrics are moving and evocative (“7:30 a.m., nurse the baby on the couch/then the phone rings/’Turn on the TV'”) and eventually turn on our leadership (“And the president hides
while working men rush in/to give their lives”). Unlike many punk bands, Tucker’s lyric is complex enough to be adult and yet easy uenough to understand. “Funeral” certainly isn’t directly about Sept. 11, but evokes the death and sadness felt on the day.

The album’s brilliant centerpiece is “Combat Rock.” The song’s darting guitar line borrows from Modest Mouse while Weiss’ drum line takes from a military procession. The song’s lyrics take on a preduitive quality as Tucker and Brownstein rail against the cultural lemming-ness of the U.S. in the post-Sept. 11 world. The first chorus intones the fearmongering from the mainstream press and politicisans:

Hey look it’s time to pledge allegiance
Oh God, I love my dirty Uncle Sam
Our country’s marching to the beat now
And we must learn to step in time

Calling skepticism “treason” and directly attacking Bush’s instructions to shop (“Show you love your country go out and spend some cash/Red white blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam”) are just the tips of the band’s intelligent lyrical iceberg about the 2002 landscape. Taking on war (“Flex our muscles show them we’re stronger than the rest”) and the neocon network (“The good old boys are back on top again”), the band eventually — with the song’s last line — reasons that we’ve been here before (“And if we let them lead us blindly/The past becomes the future once again”).

Sleater-Kinney was an amazing band and one to enjoy. They broke the gender barrier in indie rock, growing from a riot grrl stalwart to indie rock’s political conscience took a bit, but was well worth it. One Beat is the culmination of that transformation.

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    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

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