All Hands on the Bad One
By Alan Wiley
For those who've had the opportunity to hear Sleater-Kinney's previous three albums and self-titled debut extended EP, All Hands On The Bad One will not be a great revelation. For those who've never heard of Sleater-Kinney, or perhaps have heard of them but felt the hype was too strong to actually listen, it's time to jump in.
While All Hands on the Bad One may not be as savagely angry as 1996's Call The Doctor, as exuberantly poppy as 1997's wildly liberating Dig Me Out, or as subtly controlled as last year's The Hot Rock, this time around Sleater-Kinney takes some of the better bits of these previous releases and fashions them into an album worthy only of themselves. At the heart of the band are guitar goddess and lesbian heartthrob Carrie Brownstein (who can currently be seen in a series of commercials for priceline.com starring William Shatner), and guitarist/vocalist Corin Tucker, both of whom were outed as former lovers by a Spin Magazine article a few years back (much to their surprise). After the outing, Brownstein and Tucker both went underground with their personal lives, but continue to be supportive of and write about women's and queer issues. (They even played San Francisco's Dirtybird Queercore festival back in 1996.) Brownstein and Tucker (who both have current side projects, Brownstein in Tommy and The Spells and Tucker in Cadallaca have been working together as the creative drive behind the band since its inception back in the mid-90s. Brownstein was playing with Excuse 17 and Tucker with Heavens to Betsy when they realized Sleater-Kinney was going to be more than just a side project, and after so many well received albums, girl is it ever.
What sets All Hands apart from every other Sleater-Kinney album, EP, 7", or compilation appearance previously released is its sonic diversity and its near perfect use of intricate, sweet-sounding harmonies. This is due in part to the addition of drummer and karaoke starlet Janet Weiss on vocal harmonies, which she manages while keeping the beat with more creativity and excitement than almost any other drummer currently recording. (Weiss is also a member of Quasi and is Sleater-Kinney's fourth drummer -- she joined the band for Dig Me Out.)
Sleater-Kinney is no stranger to unique and intricate vocal lines -- they've developed one of the most intriguing dueling vocal styles in modern music today. The harmonies on All Hands have been almost completely absent from the band's previous releases, and this time around they've managed to include them generously without sacrificing the urgency of their trademark dueling style. But one cannot speak the words "vocals" and "Sleater-Kinney" in the same breath without at least mentioning the inimitable Corin Tucker, who has gracefully transformed herself from riot-grrl screamer into possibly the best, certainly the most talked-about, female vocalist in independent music.
Tucker started her career in the seminal riot-grrl band Heavens to Betsy, whose only album Calculated's viciousness was matched only by its vulnerability, teetering somewhere between killing you and hugging your bleeding corpse. The vocal stylings on All Hands on the Bad One are as schizophrenic as they are intoxicating, jumping from bite-your-head-off to sugar-sweet pop. At times, Corin Tucker sounds like Belinda Carlisle on crack (in a good way); other times the sheer power of her range and silky style are simply overwhelming in their beauty. Tucker's vocals are playfully counterbalanced by Brownstein's more conversational vocal style, which shows dramatic improvement on this release.
Obviously more mature after years of touring and recording (their early releases came out on the decidedly lesbian record label Chainsaw ), Sleater-Kinney are able to deliver the big bang of a stadium rock band on so-rocking-they-make-you-want-to-pull-out-your-own-hair-with-joy tracks like "Youth Decay," "Ballad of a Ladyman," and "Male Model," while displaying their continuous emotional growth on sincere, near-tearworthy tracks like "Leave You Behind."
All Hands on the Bad One's stylistic diversity may be its most exciting element, but it could also be its largest liability. As their fiercely independent audience grows larger and more mainstream, and their music grows to sound more radio- and MTV-friendly, Sleater-Kinney runs the risk of alienating their long-time hardcore fans before capturing the more mainstream attention they seem destined for. For the hardcore fan looking back on the entire Sleater-Kinney catalog, All Hands, though a welcome addition, is far from the girls' most compelling work. It skimps on the raw intimate power that made their earlier albums breathing manifestos for life and love. Many fans were left slightly disappointed by the unfulfilled promise of The Hot Rock, and I'm happy to report that All Hands did what Hot Rock couldn't. I'm afraid those disappointed fans won't bother to pick up this new album. While it may be their most mature work to date, and likely the most radio- and listener-friendly album, because Sleater-Kinney ride the fine line between indie-rock goddesses and mainstream nobodies, there is unfortunately potential to alienate both audiences. If this were to happen, it would truly be a shame.