Kill Rock Stars
By: Eric Greenwood
It isn't broken and Sleater-Kinney doesn't try to fix anything on its sixth album for Kill Rock Stars, which is good news on the one hand, but I wonder on how many more albums the band can churn out music cut from such familiar cloth. Label-mates Unwound sensed the flogging of a similarly dead horse by its sixth album, and, consequently, took time off to reassess its goals as a band. The break worked wonders, and Unwound ended up releasing its greatest artistic achievement on its seventh album. Such feats are unbelievably rare, as most bands fold by album three. So Sleater-Kinney is at a crossroads, artistically, and I'm not sure One Beat makes a convincing case for the status quo.
Sleater-Kinney is in, perhaps, the most awkward position in independent rock. Being an all-female band has way more cons than it does pros. Rising from the ashes of the slightly laughable riot grrl movement, Sleater-Kinney has bridged the gap between feminist empowerment and submissive emotional co-dependency for close to a decade, wielding raucous guitars and guttural vocal hysterics the whole time. When the band tries to be political it's often embarrassing, as it is here on "Combat Rock", where guitarist Carrie Brownstein decries US foreign policy. It's never been about what Sleater-Kinney says, but, rather, how it says it, and that's an area in which you'd be hard-pressed to find fault.
One Beat begins with a typically awkward rhythm, slightly reminiscent of Devo's version of "Satisfaction." The guitars play off one another in a disconcerting rise and fall of jagged notes. As soon as Corin Tucker's hearty lungs start bellowing, there's little doubt as to what you're listening to. She's singing with more affectation than usual, though. It's the closest Sleater-Kinney has ever come to strutting its stuff. It rocks, but only in an off-kilter way. "Far Away" may lack cohesion musically, but its spiraling riff uncovers the band's angst, bubbling at the surface. Tucker may be a one-dimensional singer, but she can certainly belt it out and make you feel it.
I've always found Brownstein's vocals to be painfully mediocre. She's much more effective in the background, as a compliment to Tucker's incessant wailing. But on the playful, retro kitsch of "Oh!" Brownstein is at the forefront and couldn't be more annoying, as she attempts to imitate Nina Hagen. The affectation is so grating that you'll likely reach for the closest sharp object. Thankfully, Tucker swoops in to save the song from utter collapse. No lesson learned, as Brownstein sings lead again on "The Remainder", but, predictably, Tucker saves the day with an explosive chorus. The band seems to be treading water on these tracks, relying on the tried and true formula of quirky verse/angry chorus.
"Light Rail Coyote" reveals an affinity for Led Zeppelin in its booming opening riff, but the song quickly reverts back into quirky, girly indie rock, much to its detriment. Unfortunately, the band seems unwilling to embrace either quirkiness or the rock wholeheartedly, which is a trick the band had mastered on its previous full-length, All Hands On the Bad One. When the horns surface in "Step Aside", it sounds not unlike Chicago (the band not the city). Such showiness is utterly unnecessary and serves merely as a way for the band to say "see, we've shaken things up a bit", when in actuality this song could have been on any of the bands past three albums, the horns notwithstanding.
I've already mentioned the ill-advised and sappily predictable political yammering of "Combat Rock", but it deserves another shot for Carrie Brownstein's irretrievably horrendous hiccupping. My God, it's so awful. The thing is, she's never sounded this annoying on any of the band's other albums, so that's what's so confusing. It's like Madonna suddenly deciding she's English and not a piece of white trash from Detroit. Well, maybe not that extreme, but it's a shocking late development, nonetheless. Corin Tucker deserves the MVP award for saving this album from the shit-heap. Tucker's voice soars in a glorious melody in the verse of "O2", the album's finest moment.
One Beat is not Sleater-Kinney's best album. It's not even close. No new ground is broken. In fact, little has changed, apart from a few horns and keyboards. I would argue that this is Sleater-Kinney's weakest album in years. The tension that marked the band's early work is all but forgotten, as there's nothing akin to the terror levels of "Dig Me Out" or even "Youth Decay", and the fresh-faced angular pop of its more recent output sounds utterly re-hashed here. Sleater-Kinney is in dire need of some inspiration. Motherhood, female empowerment, and, my God, September 11th are so hackneyed it's ridiculous. Rock bands aren't supposed to last this long. The goal is to go out in a blaze of glory- not a watered down version of yourself.