Never sounded so good

by Paul Sand

Whenever critics herald a new album as “sounding mature,” it is code that the musician made a record that is tame, toothless and chock full of songs about growing old. But One Beat (Kill Rock Stars), Sleater-Kinney’s sixth record, actually does sound more mature. Specifically, this Portland-based trio has shed the ultra-jagged fret work and nearly uncontrolled energy of past efforts, replaced it with a meatier sound and more focus, and retained every ounce of the band’s typical intensity, dating back to Sleater-Kinney’s breakthrough album, 1997’s Dig Me Out.

Their music has always showcased this frantic intensity. With Sleater-Kinney, listeners have gotten the sense that they were desperate to communicate something ñ it is less that they needed to be heard than they just needed to say something. This desperation has never been as clear as on One Beat, particularly on the title track. As drummer Janet Weiss’ subdued rhythms push the song, frontwoman Corin Tucker sings the September 11th-inspired lyrics in a half-defeated voice: “If you think like Thomas Edison / Could you invent a world for me? / Now all that’s on the surface / Are bloody arms and oil fields.” Weiss and guitarist Carrie Brownstein provide haunting backing vocals, creating a somber choral effect that compliments Tucker’s distinctive wail.

Never a band to shy away from political themes and lyrics, with One Beat Sleater-Kinney take on the irrational “You’re either with us, or without us” aftermath of September 11th. The band examines our country’s “consumerism equals patriotism” state-of-mind on One Beat with the same gusto that they approached being female musicians on 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One. “Combat Rock,” with a name swiped from The Clash, is One Beat’s most forceful and direct anti-war anthem. Tucker sings in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, delivering lines like “Where is the questioning, where is the protest song? / Since when is skepticism un-American? / Dissent’s not treason but they talk like it’s the same.” Instead of simply spitting out vengeful accusations, Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics offer the listener options, gently reminding them that there are alternatives: “There are reasons to unite / Is this why we unite? / If you hate this time / Remember we are the time!”

Not all of One Beat is as downbeat as “Combat Rock,” however. The gospel-meets-indie-rock stomp of “Step Aside” addresses the issue of a troubled world, but tries to rise above it. “Step Aside” is an important song for Sleater-Kinney because it finds them successfully mixing their own brand of punchy rock with more experimental elements like horns and a gospel-tinged vocal and lyrical stance. The song’s call-and-response among Tucker, Weiss and Brownstein provides the album’s best moment. Tucker belts out “Janet, Carrie can you hear it?,” to which Weiss and Brownstein coo this response without hesitation: “Knife though the heart of our exploitation.”

Sleater-Kinney’s strength as songwriters (or maybe their skill at album tracking) is that for every song that is overtly political, there are two that aren’t. Beyond the lyrical heaviness of the terrorism-inspired tracks, One Beat boasts some of the year’s best love songs, namely “02” and “Sympathy,” Tucker’s minimalist ode to her infant son. Buoyed by Brownstein’s slinky guitar work on the latter song, Tucker’s prominent, bluesy vibrato takes center stage. She warily sings the album’s final, compelling lines, before fading: “For the joy, for the love, for the smile on his face / I’d beg you on bended knee for him.”