SLEATER-KINNEY and the impossibility of overstatement

I’m a cis-white-male-middle-class person, so in a lot of very real and important senses, I’ve never needed “saving”–nor have I found myself in the grip of much visceral high-stakes shit to “save myself” from. But I wasn’t born with dead-smelling rubber guts, so when I first heard the music of Sleater-Kinney as a 19-year-old it charged all those alive human parts in me and rearranged the furniture in my brain and my heart and my entire body. This, I gather from reading reaction pieces and talking to people about Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 hiatus and their current reunion and new album, is a common feeling amongst their listeners. They’re a force of activation.

As a feminist they mean everything to me. As a guitar rock fan they mean everything to me. As someone with toddler nieces and a sister and a mother and aunts and grandmothers and and a fiancee and a badass woman cousin who drums in a great band–they mean everything. As someone who has the privilege of teaching teenage boys and girls, and especially girls, in the subject of writing…they mean everything. We need all the activation forces we can get. I remember one piece written after their hiatus lamented, “What are my daughters going to do without them?” If somebody said that about Led Zeppelin you’d call them a fucking idiot. This is a rock band, right? That has to be overstatement. What comes is better than what came before and all that. But there’s a reason most of Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s discography sits on my record shelf, and it’s not just because I enjoy listening to them–those are going to my nieces when they’re old enough. Sleater-Kinney has given so many people a vocabulary to talk about what it’s been like to be alive in the past 20 years. That’s what needs to be passed down. Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss are living examples of how to be awesome. That’s what needs to be passed down. And songs as great as “The Swimmer”–those need to stay with humanity for the duration.

So when a band like that makes their first record in ten years it sure warrants the launch of a million think-pieces. I won’t add too much more to mine because there are many more ecstatic, intelligent, radical ones to be read by writers who were touched with more crucial versions of the saving offered by Sleater-Kinney. If you’re looking for a good overview of the band, I’d recommend Jenn Pelley’s recent review of their box set. Meredith Graves’ essay, like all of her writing, is tops. She also makes great band recommendations there. Those are both by young people and they’re both great. Folks have been writing academic love letters to Sleater-Kinney for decades, though. If I remember correctly, I was turned onto them in an essay by Jack Halberstam (who then was writing as Judith Halberstam) called “What’s that Smell?: Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives” from his 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place. I carry that essay around with me still; it also introduced me to Ferron and Bitch & Animal and a number of other queer artists whose songs about loving women would come to define my desperately horny and unrequited male adolescence.

So, listen to No Cities to Love. Listen to everything they’ve done because it’s all at the gold standard of galactic achievement. But, really, what comes is better than what came before. There are tons of bands today who can do the heavy lifting of Sleater-Kinney. On the occasion of something so great coming our way, I’d like to recognize a few other bands with great music to offer. All these albums are streaming on Bandcamp and really cheap or donation-based. Give them a good listen, please.

Filthy Liars – If All Else Fails (Cry, Cry Again)2014

filthyliarsifallelsefails

Fuming from Halifax, Filthy Liars burn through their songs in a sinister swath of pop dynamics. Nothing is simple and everything is simple with them. It’s rock and roll but queer’d boy-band. It’s pummeling riffage and wrenching pluckery. It’s rage and heartbreak but it’s disappointment and self-defense. Every song feels like everything depends on it. So, the moment at-hand is simple–this has to work–but everything after is a putrid black room of indeterminable size–what else will go wrong if this goes wrong?” A shot in the dark is better than a shot in a face,” goes one lyric. In prose they’re as lyrical: “Shit gets fucked” they wrote to me in a note apologizing for a scuffed cassette I’d ordered. (I didn’t see anything wrong, guys.) That says it all, though. Rock on, Filthy Liars.

Hands on Ends

Guts – Guts – 2014

gutsgainesville

One fourth of Guts is Samantha Jones, whose work has shined brightly over Gainesville for over a decade. Her bands–Crustaceans, Vanbuilderass, Bitchin’, Rumbleseat, The Deep and Holy Sea, Cave Rave, Cassette, and I’m sure I’m missing a bunch–are each gems of their genres, each featuring Jones’ signature voice and guitar (except for Cave Rave, which is an all-girl drum band). Guts was a challenging listen at first because I was drawn to the familiar parts of it–the parts where Sam Jones takes a primary role. “Sugar,” for instance, is a staggeringly beautiful melody on acoustic guitar that recalls the best tones of Cassette. But Guts does not deal exclusively in that sweet spot of mine. Nor should they, of course. Jones is the mentor here and the other members bring so much strength to the group. They’re after a new sound that privileges vocal harmonies and percussion. Guts (Jones, Rebecca Butler, Kentucky Costello, and Kara Smith) drum-up a dancey sort of schoolyard album. I’m not afraid of the unfamiliar anymore, Guts! Give me all the funk you got!

Sugar

Hey Hallways – Absence Makes the Heart Forget EP – 2014

heyhallways

This is a perfectly put together cassette. Side A is four crashing punk songs. Real kick-ass power-pop shit. “Is this a better life? / Is it enough to justify / spending all my time / just thinking about myself / and how I got this life?” the dude sings. “I’m lucky to feel anything at all,” he decides. Side B, though, is the wonder. It’s one 9-minute performance that ties samples from Side A into an acoustic guitar sermon. It’s such a different feel than Side A but it’s just as engaging and effective. When I listen to it, I feel like I’m absorbing stuff I can’t identify but will probably have to meet sometime in the future. “My biggest fear is apathy,” a voice interjects over a layer of reverent “oohs.” It’s mysterious. How many songs are still mysterious? Also, it was produced by Jason Clackley of the awesome band The Exquisites.

Anything At All

High Dive – High Dive EP – 2014

highdive-ep

I listed High Dive’s premier EP These are the Days in my belated recap of 2013’s best releases. They’ve only gotten better since adding Ginger Alford. Alford is in many ways like a Sam Jones of Bloomington IN, a city with a lot of great songwriters. She kills on guitar here and in all of her bands–One Reason, Traveling, Good Luck, her Springsteen-covering duo with Paul Baribeau, and I’m sure I’m missing a bunch. Ginger Alford needs to make music for the next thirty years or else I’ll always know what I’m missing and be super bummed. The founding members and songwriters in High Dive–Toby Foster, Nick Romy, Ryan Woods, and Richard Wehrenberg, Jr–are superstars, as well. Every song is an anthem–needed ones, too. No general drinking choruses, but poignant calls for camaraderie. If Katy Perry sang Toby Foster’s “Sirens,” it would change the world. But High Dive sings and plays it as though they were playing to a Katy Perry-sized audience anyway. It marks one of the best final songs of a release I can remember. Foster and Woods collaborated on a record a few years ago with Clyde Petersen and Theo Hilton, and the tagline to that record was “By Queers, For Adventurers.” I always dug that and that spirit certainly extends to their High Dive stuff.

Sirens

I said in my review for DBT’s English Oceans how much it means to have bands who incorruptibly and articulately stand for righteous shit and kick ass at guitars (like Batman but so much better). Bands who expand your world because they’re so good at making art that reflects what your world already is. I’m sure you have a band like that close to your heart (tell us who!) and I hope you get to enjoy new music from them as long as possible. Dear glob, Sleater-Kinney, I love you so much! Thank you for everything.

Author: Mike Ostrov

Mike Ostrov relays the history of popular song on message boards and under rocks.