Every time a new Sleater-Kinney record is released, there's a lot of frantic media posturing about just what Sleater-Kinney is. Are they post-riot grrrl? Lady punk? Angry musicians with politics? Blah, blah, blah. The argument could go on till the hipsters come home to the squat, but the one thing we can all agree on is that Sleater-Kinney somehow manages to constantly evolve and stay true to its roots, as proven with its powerful sixth release, One Beat.
It's not as full of catchy hooks as All Hands on the Bad One, but One Beat still embraces the classic best of S-K: Janet Weiss's hell-be-damned drumming, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein's ferocious call-and-response vocals, and those groovy dueling guitars. But they don't just stick to the basics. The trio -- who recently moved to Portland, Oregon, from Olympia, Washington -- brings in horns and strings on this one, and their songs run longer than usual (yes, over three minutes is long for this band -- but still).
Always politically conscious, the ladies must have been writing and recording right around September 11, as no fewer than three of the 12 songs on the album touch on the national mood after the tragedy. The most notable is the frustrated rant "Far Away," with new mama Tucker belting out her hope that it won't "rain on my family tonight." As usual, the lyrics never shy away from controversy. The rambunctious "Combat Rock" is full of scathing comments about the post-9/11 patriotic frenzy, reminding us to "Show you love your country go out and spend some cash / Red white blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam."
The chipper "Oh!" sounds like a remnant from All Hands, with its sing-along lyrics and head-bopping beat. And Tucker's memorable voice (she still sounds like Belinda Carlisle's tough big sister) has never been better than on "Step Aside," where she hollers out to her bandmates by name, asking if they can feel the "knife through the heart of our exploitation."
The band isn't worried about taking chances, and it pays off, especially on "Step Aside." The track has the women bringing in friends Russ Scott and Mike Wayland to add a little trumpet and alto and tenor sax to the mix. The futuristic-sounding "Prisstina" (complete with -- gasp -- a synthesizer!) is also a well-taken risk. While both songs are quite a departure from the gritty tunes off the band's earliest records, there's still something very Sleater-Kinney about them: the aware lyrics, the earnest guitar work and the driving beat.
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It's refreshing to hear a rock band so mindful of its strengths yet not complacent enough to be constrained by them. Sleater-Kinney is not a band to be tied up by silly critics, no matter what label we put on it.