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Sleater-Kinney rise from Heaven to Betsy's ashes
by Charles Taylor
If you're in earshot when Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker opens her mouth to sing, you have no choice but to pay attention. And it's just as impossible to be indifferent to her on the band's new Call the Doctor (Chainsaw). As half of the now disbanded Heavens to Betsy (with Tracy Sawyer), Tucker produced one of those small, potent bodies of work that don't exist as far as the commercial market is concerned but will probably be causing ruptures under the surface of the music scene years from now. Like X-Ray Spex, to whose Poly Styrene Tucker's vocals are indebted, Heavens to Betsy were one of the revelations that the DIY ethic makes possible: the utterly distinctive, commanding sound of people convinced they have a noise worth making, and seizing a bit of ground to make it.
That sound was scattered over 45s, compilations, and one album, 1994's Calculated (Kill Rock Stars). As embodied by the tremulous stridency of Tucker's voice, a voice suspended between tears and a scream, Heavens to Betsy took the recklessness of emotional extremes as their modus operandi. There is no more scalding or believable account of female adolescent rage, confusion, and pain in rock and roll. If it's possible for a band to make music that's both exhilarating and no fun, Heavens to Betsy did.
Besides Tucker, the remaining two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney on Call the Doctor are Carrie Kinney (née Brownstein, formerly of Excuse 17) on guitar, backing vocals, and the most bloodcurdling screams I've ever heard, and Lora Macfarlane (who has since been replaced by Toni Gogin) on drums. Call the Doctor is a tight piece of work that sounds both barbed and dense. Although it clocks in at just over half an hour, it bursts the bounds of its compact structure. And you need only about half of the title-track opener to grasp what territory these three are staking out. "They want to socialize you/They want to purify you/They want to dignify, analyze, terrorize you," Tucker sings as she and Kinney lay down dark, trawling guitar lines while Macfarlane's rolls and fills keep the beat ticking nervously forward. Suddenly, mid song, it busts open. The three drop the fidgety rhythm they've established and light out for the territories, leaving scorched earth in their wake. It's the most expansive, buoyant sound I've ever heard in any music associated with riot grrrls -- the freedom belying the anger -- and it suggests that if Sleater-Kinney are nourished by that scene's camaraderie, they are not about to be hemmed in by it.
In sound and sensibility, Call the Doctor is leaps beyond the homonymous mini-CD the band released last fall. Tucker's anger is still palpable on Call the Doctor. What she sees as the way society segregates and limits women, and defines their worth, remains her favorite theme. "Not for sale/Not your girl/Not your thing" is the refrain of "Take Me Home," her rejection of the life she imagines being offered her by the guy who comes into her place of work every day to check her out. Call the Doctor is in no way a mellowed piece of work. What makes it the fullest, most mature album any riot grrrl performer has produced isn't Tucker abandoning her anger (the idea that anger is incompatible with maturity is a facile one), but rather Tucker starting (reluctantly) to register the contingencies and compromises that her ideologically based rage is inadequate to confront.
She puts doubt right alongside the anger in her voice. The result is the sound of someone fighting to stay on two feet, not suppressing any emotion and not being felled by any either. When she sings, "I'm no monster I'm just like you," the inseparable pain and beauty of that outcry, the ache to be accepted but on her terms, makes her sound as if she could be the older sister to Carson McCullers's Frankie in Member of the Wedding. There are echoes of other forebears, some of which Tucker may not have heard: the petulant yearning of Claudine Clark's "Party Lights"; the proto-feminism of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" with its simultaneous desire for identity and pleasure; and the heartstopping longing of the Chantels' "Maybe," on which the world doesn't sound big enough to contain 15-year-old Arlene Smith's voice.
Call the Doctor suggests that if Tucker is appalled by the politics of the rock-and-roll star system, she's driven by the ambition to get what she has to say across. Star or not, she's a force to be reckoned with. Too many rock critics have dismissed riot grrrl because it hasn't made a commercial impact (as if the charts were all that mattered), but much of the greatest rock and roll hasn't made that kind of impact. To wonder whether riot grrrl will reach the masses or whether Sleater-Kinney are rock and roll's future is not the point. This is: for anyone with the ears to hear, they are its present.