Head Over Heels

A country-and-western Mary J. Blige? Sleater-Kinney

A country-and-western Mary J. Blige? Sleater-Kinney

POST-RIOT-GRRRLS Sleater-Kinney are a boy rock critic's wet dream. Not just because they sport that pouty, Salvation Army T-shirt-wearing look that drives those guys wild, but because SK's fifth album, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars), is the kind of complex, multifaceted work that sparks hours of tedious nerdspeak. Is it a self-important, jaded up-yours to their indie-rock peers? Is it a portrait of the young ladies as artists? Is it a song-by-song conceptual response to the Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat? The answer, more than likely, is yes to the third (the thematic cohesion is remarkable), but who cares?

The most significant thing about Sleater-Kinney, who play First Avenue on May 9, amounts to this: They continue to make feminist punk rock that isn't boring, precious, or preachy. They know how rare this is, and make no apologies for the rest of the riot wrrrld. They have the balls (sorry, sisters) to use the nation's all-ages venues as a practice space, and their hard work seems to be paying off (Entertainment Weekly has suggested they're "the greatest rock & roll band in America"--albeit in a piece penned by former City Pages music editor and simpatico soul Will Hermes). The title track shows how much tighter and less flailing their rage has become, with Corin Tucker still belting out the kind of insolent social commentary that made Olympia famous: "Can't get to heaven in your Sunday best/The night before, they were calling it your cocktail dress."

Tucker and fellow singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein alternate between attacks on a society that tells them they should be wearing a size six--not playing a six-string--and expressions of their belief in instant karma. Same old, same old, really, but the album's music is a surprising departure. Sure, the opening track, "Ballad of the Ladyman," features a typically slow, sensual vocal buildup and spunky punk beat--complete with the handclaps that made "Little Babies" a college-radio hit. But the trio blends synthesizers (!) and fuzzed-out boy-rock almost sweetly everywhere else--clues to the lay listener that there's more going on here than just some spoiled little tomboys postponing their entrance into the workforce.

All Hands on the Bad One can have the eclecticism of a good compilation--think Slant 6, Tsunami, Helium, and Bis stranded on a desert island with Phil Spector and a four-track. "Milkshake 'n Honey" finds Tucker's trademark high-pitched wail hitting the line "Visa, Mastercard, Discovered that I was spent/Took my best jeans and left me paying the rent" like a country-and-western Mary J. Blige. "The Swimmer" gets slow and dreamy, like an acid-drenched Casio keyboard jam with Yo La Tengo. And before you can say, "Our Lips Are Sealed," the album shifts easily from such sullen sing-alongs (fans love those) to poppy tunes such as the anti-consumerist "#1 Must Have"--a song Fugazi might have written if they had had to watch the menstruation films in junior high. Or maybe it's what Jane Wiedlin could have come up with had she hooked up with Kevin Seconds...

So the Y-chromosome-bearing, cardigan-and-chain-wallet-wearing set can pop open a six-pack of Mountain Dew, kick off the Chuck Taylors, and settle in for a night of fawning. Everyone else should take All Hands on the Bad One as evidence that Sleater-Kinney aren't some overrated one-trick indie artifact to be filed between Bikini Kill and Bratmobile--and proof to the boys that they're more than three hot chicks in low-rider cords.