Keeping the Faith

AT THE CENTER of rock & roll mystery lies an act of faith called catharsis. What--or who--sets it off? Why does it make a person feel so big, like suddenly your skin can't hold you? Is catharsis the right word, and, if so, what is being washed away? Grief? Does this cleansing last, does it cure your illness, or does it only treat the symptoms?

I ask these questions because three months ago I was listening to the third song of an advance cassette from a band I'd heard of but never heard, and my scalp started tingling. Now, I'm aware that faith is not a very healthy approach to a consumer product, and I've long suspected that what often gets purged from an audience in this youth-directed entertainment is nothing less than the will to challenge the world outside the concert hall. The incandescent roar of Sleater-Kinney's "Little Mouth" didn't change my mind. It simply shook me until I saw double.

Of course, rock & roll is just one pressure-release system in a very large machine; of course it's magical and scary and a/rousing. Sleater-Kinney was born out of this puzzle, as well as others having to do with gender, identity, and history. Their sophomore album, Call the Doctor (Chainsaw), peeks out from the space between its conflicting perspectives like some impossible truth. I want to say that singers and guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein know this place because they are women, but the fact is that psychic disjunction is rapidly becoming less a function of social oppression than a tenet of postmodern existence. "Honestly, my thoughts are really contradictory," confesses Tucker, on the phone a couple of weeks ago from snowed-in Worcester, Massachusetts. "Being able to show that in my lyrics is just about being able to see things from more than one point of view."

Named for an intersection near Olympia, Washington, Sleater-Kinney cross anxiety with strength, earnestness with sarcasm, mapping a more tenuous, unreliable consciousness than what Tucker now describes as the self-righteous, "I will survive!"-determination of her former band Heavens to Betsy. In contrast, Sleater-Kinney songs almost always admit their shadows. For who's to say which is more true? Is this girl your monster, "messing with what's sacred," or your little mouth, selling herself with a smile? The album's title track concludes, with no little frustration, "same body different hearts/can't tell anymore the real parts."

These dialogues are as much aural as lyrical: Tucker's incredible voice unfurls high and throbbing, while Brownstein hums murkier melancholies, sardonic and sore. The two songwriters run counterpoint chants across their soaring choruses, deepening static verses with complicating asides. "I think that we want to rock really hard," says Tucker without noticeable irony, "but that we do it in our own way. If you grew up with that kind of music, you can't help but wanna mess around with it; I definitely think that's a strong part of Sleater-Kinney, because those ghosts are really powerful for us. But we are really confrontational with it as well. The songwriting that we do tries to mock it at the same time that we're playing around with it. I think that's kind of liberating."

A good illustration is "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," where Tucker and Brownstein dress up in the clothes of rock stardom and fandom, trying on arrogance and greedy lust to delirious, dastardly effect. "People take it as being completely serious or as being totally not serious," notes Tucker wryly, "where it's not really either one of those. We are really sincere... in playing around."

This is Call the Doctor's most basic tension: the pull between the baggage you inherit--artistic or otherwise--and what you do with it. Messing with your inheritance, Tucker thinks, can be a significant political act: that's why Sleater-Kinney pushes back with feminist fury and wit, why the band has chosen to align itself with the alternative economies of underground music.

Not that this trio isn't aware of what it's up against. "NOT FOR SALE" proclaims Tucker in "Taking Me Home"--but she well knows the CD has a price tag on it. Is there anything anymore that can't be sold and owned and controlled? "It's being able to have your music move people," claims Tucker, "and yourself. Having that feeling of catharsis and of letting go--when everything works out and it just clicks and everybody just starts rocking out." CP

Sleater-Kinney perform an all-ages show at the U of M's Whole Music Club with Braniac, Lazy, and Superman Curl on Friday; music starts at 7 p.m. See Music Notes for more info.

 
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