Formed in Portland, Oregon at the fag end of grunge, Sleater-Kinney’s fifth album ‘One Beat’ was never going to be in keeping with rock’s current love affair with the apparently endless procession of metal-lite brats (the pseudo macho Sum 41 being the defining example) currently parading across MTV2. There aren’t any dumb sing-a-long choruses or goofy videos a la Blink 182. What there are plenty of though, are joyous riff driven choruses that burst out of nowhere, menacing off-kilter drum beats and good old angsty vocals with just a dash of Siouxsie Sioux thrown in for good measure. Which all adds up to something pretty different to the status quo.
The ridiculously catchy chorus is reassuringly heavy on Riot Grrrl shrieks
From the steady, relentless grind of the opening track ‘One Beat’, through ‘The Remainder’, a subdued slow burn of a song with a backdrop of the subtlest strings, that builds teasingly to it’s finale, Sleater-Kinney demonstrate their talent for creating musical suspense. You’re never quite sure what any given song will turn into. Take ‘Oh!’ which starts with the sort of sparse rumbling bass Joy Division made their own, and jumps suddenly into playfully melodic harmonies. Just when you think it’s all getting too fey, bite is restored with the ridiculously catchy chorus, reassuringly heavy on Riot Grrrl shrieks and that menacing bass line.
Something that marks Sleater-Kinney out from lesser talents is Carrie Brownstein’s voice. Imagine a mixture of the anguished howl of Courtney Love, the arch coolness of Deborah Harry and the clear light melody of Chrissie Hynde and you’re getting there. Really. On ‘Light Rail Coyote’ Carrie Brownstein’s dry, sardonic vocals are pure Lou Reed rock ‘n’ roll, and show Sleater-Kinney can do intricate harmonies while never losing their rougher, garage rock edge. And those who found her a little hard to take on previous albums will be pleased to hear she has curtailed her tendency to wail here.
‘Funeral Song’ is another stand out track. Its country-tinged guitars, thunderous drums and unsettling southern gothic lyrics recall a rougher hewn PJ Harvey. Whatever it’s influences, though, it’s a masterful treatment of the classic quiet/loud combination. But it’s not all gush, folks. There is a slight patchiness to the record. The underwhelming ‘Step Aside’ is unfortunately a perfect example of this – a mish-mash of pointless trumpets and an ill advised Status Quo-esque bass line that goes nowhere. It’s classic mid album filler and lets the rest of the material down. ‘Prisstina’, is better, if you can ignore the over-earnest lyrics, but it’s still a slightly disappointing standard garage rock work out.
So it’s left to ‘Hollywood Ending’, jagged punk of uncertain structure, to save the day, and save it, it does, especially when it concludes with a spectacular drum roll worthy of the cockiest of cock rock bands. Closing track ‘Sympathy’ is a refreshing change of direction. All lazy, bluesy guitars and stop start rhythms, it allows Sleater-Kinney’s Unique Selling Point, Carrie Brownstein’s edgy rock vocals, to shine. In a male dominated rock scene, Sleater-Kinney combine the best bits of Riot Grrrl attitude with good old fashioned gender blind rock ‘n’ roll.