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Sleater-Kinney top even themselves

by Stephanie Zacharek

[Sleater-Kinney] When you adore rock and roll -- when there are times you take it in like air -- there's nothing more thrilling than to see a band you love top themselves. There was no album I loved more in 1996 than Sleater-Kinney's Call the Doctor, and though the year is young, I'm certain there's no album I'll love more in 1997 than their newest, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars). Although singing the praises of Sleater-Kinney isn't any kind of renegade act (the band made the number 3 slot on the 1996 Village Voice Pazz and Job critics' poll, certainly an arrival of sorts), I can't be bothered to contemplate the possibility of a Sleater-Kinney backlash -- a time when other critics and artists in the indie-rock world wink at one another and say, "You know, they're not really all that good." Sorry, but they are that good. And they're only getting better. Theirs is a limb I will crawl out on willingly, and if it breaks underneath me, I'll show the bruises like battle scars.

Because Sleater-Kinney are a band worth getting a tattoo for. Lead vocalist Corin Tucker sings like a desert mirage, a voice in whose brutal beauty you almost can't bring yourself to believe: her vibrato is like the ripples of warmth you see rising from the road on a hot day, a lush curtain of heat and temptation you speed toward, and through, willingly. For the 13 songs on Dig Me Out, new drummer Janet Weiss builds frameworks that move and breathe, their muscles loose, their joints greased.

And with Dig Me Out, Carrie Brownstein stakes a claim for herself not just as the most talented guitarist to come out of riot grrrl (she's a former member of Excuse 17) but as one of the most exhilarating rock guitarists ever. For me, seeing her live with the band twice last year cemented her reputation: she plays as if generations of rock-star lore had seeped into her very bones. Even more important, she owns her sound -- it's bought and paid for, the credit slip ripped up long ago. All the classic licks are locked in her heart as well as her head, and they tumble out in brilliant combinations. She's not one for fancy fiddling and diddling: she's the queen bee of knowing exactly what to put where, when. Her sound is intuitive and organic and spare, and its rough elegance slips through and around Tucker's vocals and supporting guitar lines like a metallic mesh ribbon forged from a precious alloy.

On Call the Doctor, Sleater-Kinney set out to sandblast the stultified structure and the complacency of traditional rock and roll. With Dig Me Out, they've circled back to pay tribute to it, but on their own terms. "Dum dum diddy de dum dum de dum, yeah!/Rock the little babies with 1-2-3-4," they sing out on "Little Babies," and it's both a lullaby-ditty and a manifesto with the force of a volcano. Dig Me Out is an unusual album: there's so much sonic delight in it -- for the first time, you understand how much joy (and not just catharsis) Sleater-Kinney get out of playing. The album is less about nappy interstellar textures than about classic sounds bent to Sleater-Kinney's iron will: you get Duane Eddy riffs and handclaps, surfer-girl licks and Sheena of the Jungle drumbeats.

There's a world of tenderness and exuberance, of passion and dread, encompassed in the sphere of this 36-minute album, and more recklessness and freedom than some artists show in an entire career. Sleater-Kinney are just as fearless about performing an unusually (for them) sweet love song like "Buy Her Candy" ("If I buy her candy/Will she know who I am?") as they are with a stark, brooding one like "Turn It Up." "Don't say the word if you don't want it done/Don't tell me your name, if you don't want it sung," Tucker says, as if issuing a bad-weather advisory about the price you pay when you fall for a rock-and-roller.

But if "Turn It Up" is half chilly sea breeze, it's also half cherry popsicle, built around handclaps, the crisp rustle of Weiss's snare, and Brownstein's ponying guitar. When I was five and I held a transistor radio up to my ear as if it were a seashell, I drank in the glory of "I Saw Her Standing There" and the menace of "The House of the Rising Sun." I see now that the songs were a dual promise: a foreshadowing of a lifetime filled with music that would both delight and stir me, that would knock me off balance now and then. Dig Me Out makes me think of those transistor-radio summers, and of how, just when I think that promise can't be played out for me in a new way, someone pulls it off. Sleater-Kinney have knocked me for a loop two years in a row. They make me glad that a transistor always fascinated me more than a seashell, and they reassure me that a radio has more secrets to spill, and better ones, too.

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