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All Hands on the Bad One

Steven Rubio
Wednesday, April 26 2000, 9:05 PM

"Culture is what we make it, yes it is," sings Corin Tucker at the end of "#1 Must Have" from Sleater-Kinney's latest magnificent album, All Hands on the Bad One. "Now is the time," she wails, and in her vocals, you can hear Tucker making culture, as she repeats her mantra, "Now is the time to invent, invent, invent." Her mind-boggling voice may be god-given, but the culture is in the music Sleater-Kinney invents, and with this new album, the greatest of all current bands effortlessly blends musical and lyrical maturity with the youthful grrl power that is their foundation.

As always, Sleater-Kinney's musical roots are lovingly clear, although here the influences are perhaps not as obvious as in past albums. "#1 Must Have," with its jagged guitar and drum rhythms, recalls the Gang of Four even before the culture call that closes the song. Elsewhere, the spare musical touches of songs like "Was It a Lie" suggest the B-52s (although S-K's signature two-guitar/no-bass sound is notably lacking in the punkfunk of either the B-52s or the Gang of Four). And in the album's most musically powerful cut, "Youth Decay," Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker channel the guitar sound of the Give 'em Enough Rope-era Clash into a narrative both subtle and bruising.

"Youth Decay" demonstrates how far this band has come in a short time. Reminiscent of Call the Doctor's "Little Mouth," "Youth Decay" focuses the almost random anger of the earlier song into a biting passion, the power of which represents the cultural invention Tucker sings about elsewhere. The driving guitars and superb drumming of the reliably brilliant Janet Weiss combine with the unearthly power of Tucker's voice to transform the actual lyrics ("Am I rotting out?") into an uneasy statement of assurance. The Sleater-Kinney of "Little Mouth" veered on the edge of chaos, but in "Youth Decay" we hear a mature band able to harness chaos, in the process inventing a new culture that can overwhelm the rot. That rot is all over All Hands on the Bad One; this is not a band that shies away from the ugliness of the everyday commercial world. But in the excellence of the music and the strength of Tucker's vocals, we hear women artists who refuse to rot, who insist that now is the time to invent.

Over the years, Sleater-Kinney has become a great rock and roll outfit. Drummer Weiss is the not-so-secret weapon; it is no coincidence that S-K's albums moved from good to great when Weiss joined the band. Carrie Brownstein's snaky guitar lines are as much a signature of the group's sound as Tucker's vocals, and in live performance, Carrie is the heart of S-Ks intimate relationship with their audience. Meanwhile, Corin Tucker's voice continues to defy adjectives. The new album features less of the idiosyncratic counterpoint Carrie/Corin vocals that marked so much of their earlier work, and while the increasingly compact power of the overall sound is a happy compensation, the intricate complexity of those vocals is missed.

This is a band that matters. They are indeed inventing their own culture, creating their art without compromise. All Hands on the Bad One stands with Dig Me Out as their best work. All Hands on the Bad One is available from Kill Rock Stars