It's doubtful many critics will break from listening to major-label promos and herald Sleater-Kinney's Call the Doctor (Chainsaw), which is a shame, because the album deftly fuses formal precision and raw passion. Singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, along with former drummer Lora MacFarlane (now replaced by Toni Gogin), create hooks that SPIN pets would sell their souls for. But they couple them with words that expose the price of love in a culture that reduces communication to transaction. Knowingly or not, all pop exposes emotional and physical boundaries; Sleater-Kinney scrutinizes them with political intent.
Courtney Love (who relies on a male lead guitarist) mocked riot grrrl's crude musicianship, but Corin Tucker's previous band, Heavens to Betsy, embodied its primal power. Heavens to Betsy's recordings fight toward expression; Tucker's boiling-kettle voice turns each syllable into a struggle between strength and vulnerability. In contrast, Sleater-Kinney's control allows the freedom to conceive fresh, untamed music of beauty. The high-low call-and-response of Tucker's and Brownstein's guitars is echoed in the group's harmonies. Wilder than '60s girl-group cries, more intricate than '90s grrrl-band shouts, they work like a conversation between the voice in one's throat and the voices in one's head. Other times, they reach out to each other from a distance.
Heavens to Betsy put a drawing of a sliced-open heart on the cover of Calculated, the band's only LP. The image is apt: The group's songs transform a cartoon valentine into a bloody site of survival, trading the romantic fantasies of standard rock lyrics (which function like hetero training manuals for kids) for harsh realities of female adolescence: menstruation, molestation, abortion. Sleater-Kinney carries this theme into adulthood. Both Tucker and Brownstein turn body trouble into a cultural indictment: Tucker through surgical imagery; Brownstein through the binge/purge of bulimia and titles like "Heart Attack." Contrast Hole's "Doll Parts" with a Sleater-Kinney chorus like "I'm your little mouth/ Don't you want me?" -- one is numb and fake, the other painfully alive.
"Little Mouth" refers to "damaged goods"; Call the Doctor's stark, conversational love songs stress the market value of female sexuality -- the "things" and "stuff" in "Good Things" and "My Stuff" function internally and externally, as longings and belongings. Greil Marcus has noted that Tucker's singing transforms the "feeling" of her cover of Boston's "More Than a Feeling" into "theory, history, [and] fortune telling." Tucker is capable of making a world out of a word; her voice has an extremity and range of emotion -- remorse, rage, terror, excitement -- that shatters the boundaries of genres like punk and pop.
An incredibly catchy critique of commercialism, "Anonymous" tries to establish a self that isn't defined by words or money. "Not enough for you to know/ Not enough for you to own," Tucker's supercharged voice repeats, but each statement of opposition is shadowed by frustration and ambivalence ("Never on the record/ It'll never show up") about invisibility. The song's warring impulses coalesce when Tucker violently tears at the title word, stressing the pros and cons of anonymity, a status that's a privilege for the culturally franchised but a trap for minority voices who honor honesty.
Replacing role-playing, gender-bending, and other female rock tropes with less sensational themes, Tucker and Brownstein reject irony. Rather than recast concessions to oppressors as imaginary acts of subversion, they epitomize the radical stance of critic Armond White's new book, The Resistance. "A child who has 'wisdom' thrust upon him is the tragedy of our times," White writes in a piece about gangsta rap. Sleater-Kinney applies this to female experience in a country that confuses naked women with little girls. "I'm not waiting/ Till I grow up/ To be a woman," Tucker sings during "I'm Not Waiting"; "Go out on the lawn/ Put your swimsuit on," Brownstein answers with a predatory sneer.
While cathartic, Tucker's music has always been brave enough to put a heavy price on pleasure. In Heavens to Betsy songs like "Axemen," she wrestles with the psychological shame of racism, a subject white rockers ignore and white rappers dodge through liberal platitudes and slavish imitation. Sleater-Kinney's rare sense of obligation to female listeners is apparent in Call the Doctor's "I Wanna Be Yr Joey Ramone," which breaks free from lucre and language, finding liberation in rock's currents of energy. Tracing the path from fan to artist, from inspiration to creation, the song travels through private places (bedrooms) and public spaces (concerts), conquering as it enters. Pushing in front of a crowd, Brownstein sings, "It's what I thought/ It's rock 'n' roll": In that moment of discovery, rock is reinvented -- again.
It's no coincidence that male critics are championing "post rock" (prog rock in trendy new clothes) at a time when female artists are redefining the medium. Call the Doctor packs more innovation within two-minute structures than other artists unveil in bloated 18-minute epics. Instead of drowning in self-pity (like most MTV bands) or viewing home as a place to avoid -- the age-old Rolling Stones approach -- Sleater-Kinney (the group takes its name from a suburban street in Olympia, Wash.) sees the domestic space as a charged site where authority first wields force. In "My Stuff" ("Say no way/ We won't let them grow up that way") and "Call the Doctor," family ties tighten to become strangleholds; grabbing madly for a belief or object that gives reason to live, both songs have the force of seizures.
Whether addressing urban violence, AIDS, or sexual abuse, the most vital art today shows how society's overall malaise engenders physical illness within minority communities. Using pop as a tool for change rather than a toy for selfish escapism, Sleater-Kinney challenges men -- gay and straight -- to look past the archetypes and artifice of feminine drag and learn from flesh-and-blood female experience.
Sleater-Kinney plays Thurs, March 21, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 621-4455.