Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Sleater-Kinney [Chainsaw, 1995] A-
  • Call the Doctor [Chainsaw, 1996] A
  • Dig Me Out [Kill Rock Stars, 1997] A
  • The Hot Rock [Kill Rock Stars, 1999] A
  • All Hands on the Bad One [Kill Rock Stars, 2000] A-
  • One Beat [Kill Rock Stars, 2002] A
  • The Woods [Sub Pop, 2005] A
  • No Cities to Love [Sub Pop, 2015] A
  • Live in Paris [Sub Pop, 2017] B+
  • The Center Won't Hold [Mom + Pop, 2019] A-
  • Path of Wellness [Mom + Pop, 2021] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sleater-Kinney [Chainsaw, 1995]
Heavens to Betsy's warbly wailer Corin Tucker joins Excuse 17's solemn screamer Carrie Brownstein for ten songs in twenty-two minutes, and voice-on-voice and guitar-on-guitar they figure out love by learning to hate. Three different lyrics reject the penis soi-même with a fervor that could pass for disgust, and while their same-sex one-on-ones aren't exactly odes to joy, they convey a depth of feeling that could pass for passion. In these times of principled irony and shallowness for its own sake, that's enough to make them heroines and outsiders simultaneously. A-

Call the Doctor [Chainsaw, 1996]
Like the blues, punk is a template that shapes young misfits' sense of themselves, and like the blues it takes many forms. This is a new one, and it's damn blueslike. Powered by riffs that seem unstoppable even though they're not very fast, riding melodies whose irresistibility renders them barely less harsh, Corin Tucker's enormous voice never struggles more inspirationally against the world outside than when it's facing down the dilemmas of the interpersonal--dilemmas neither eased nor defined by her gender preferences, dilemmas as bound up with family as they are with sex. As partner/rival/Other Carrie Brownstein puts it in an eloquently tongue-tied moment: "It's just my stuff." Few if any have played rock's tension-and-release game for such high stakes--revolution as existentialism, electric roar as acne remedy. They wanna be our Joey Ramone, who can resist that one? But squint at the booklet and you'll see they also want to be our Thurston Moore. They want it both ways, every which way. And most of the time they get it. A

Dig Me Out [Kill Rock Stars, 1997]
One reason you know they're young is that they obviously believe they can rock and roll at this pitch forever. Whatever the verbal message of their intricate, deeply uptempo simplicity--less sexual angst, more rock-as-romance--it's overrun by their excited mastery and runaway glee. Like a new good lover the second or third time, they're so confident of their ability to please that they just can't stop. And this confidence is collective: Corin and Carrie chorus-trade like the two-headed girl, dashing and high-stepping around on Janet Weiss's shoulders. What a ride. A

The Hot Rock [Kill Rock Stars, 1999]
What's hard to get used to here, and what's also freshest and perhaps best, is how Corin and Carrie's voices intertwine--even reading the booklet it's hard to keep track of who's saying what to whom about what, as if they'd fallen in love with (or to) the Velvets' "Murder Mystery." Not that meanings would be crystalline in any case, or that they should be. With Cadallaca an outlet for Corin's girlish ways, S-K emerges as a diary of adulthood in all its encroaching intricacy. I mean, the guitars don't crunch like they used to either, and that's the very reason "Get Up" sounds like death and desire at the same time. The reason "The Size of Our Love" sounds like death, on the other hand, is that sometimes love is death. Nobody ever said maturity would be fun and games. A

All Hands on the Bad One [Kill Rock Stars, 2000]
Locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967. Unfortunately, that doesn't render them immune to the experiential droughts that afflict all touring musicians, or to the media-studies clichés they fall back into when they get hung up on the meaning of their careers. So everything that's right with the three-part synergy and herky-jerk dynamics of "Was It a Lie?" doesn't convince me that the media victim it bemoans died so vainly or so significantly, and in general I prefer these songs as songs when they adduce the musicians' separate lives rather then their collective mission. But play "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun" on your broadcast medium of choice and I'll whoop and holler like I'd requested it myself. A-

One Beat [Kill Rock Stars, 2002]
Sleater-Kinney is one of three unapologetically political bands to respond to September 2001's world-change with August 2002 albums, and it's remarkable how different they are. The Mekons are cynical and defiant; Springsteen is spiritual and uplifting. Yet both seem worn out, as if neither defiance nor uplift can get them out of bed in the morning. Sleater-Kinney, on the other hand, go for defiant uplift and seem energized by the challenge. Probably it isn't the stance that energizes them--it's their energy that powers the stance. Not only are they a generation younger, they're riding the crest of a wild success burdened by neither the Mekons' quarter-century of subsistence nor Springsteen's felt responsibility to 10 million consumers--not to mention that Corin spent 2001 with her new baby, who plays a suitably small and crucial role in her September 11 song. Throughout they bubble and shriek--literally in the opener, where Corin's "bubble in a sound wave" is the secret of both social and nuclear fusion, and in the career guitar line Carrie lays under "Oh!" Let "Step Aside" do its thing and you'll "shake a tail feather for peace and love" no matter what your weary self thinks of protest songs. A

The Woods [Sub Pop, 2005]
Corin Tucker's abrasive warble is made for a Zeppelin move that seems inevitable now that it's here, and when the lyrics fail to mesh, or veer toward the sociologically corny, her proven ability to plow such quibbles is beefed up from the backup muscle. Nevertheless, the metal affinities are basically spiritual. Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev hand Dave Fridmann ain't John David Kalodner. Although the album is definitely loud, it's also raw, with no hint of the symphonic, yet at the same time it's a melodic highlight of an honorably tuneful catalog. And come down to it, the words are pretty good. I like the one about the boho losers. And the hungry-so-angry one. And the one that disses Interpol. A

No Cities to Love [Sub Pop, 2015]
This return to the wars isn't necessarily their best album, but that it might be is an up in itself. Their pride is their joy, their standards are high, and they show no sign of getting back together because they could use the payday, although except for Carrie I expect they could--between its noisy desperation and its narrative detail, the clashing Corin opener "Price Tag" nails the overbooked constraints of the strapped middle class like she knows them by heart. Honed back down to punky three-minute songs because the leisure to stretch out is a luxury they can't presently afford, the music carries the seed of tumult to come, the sense that something or everything could explode without notice just the way this album did. My only cavil is that I wish the singing would relax more, even at the cost of softening the album's tension, and note that Carrie lets herself go that way on a kind of love song that links fame with mediocrity in the rare woe-I'm-a-star number fueled by emotions anyone can feel the point of. A

Live in Paris [Sub Pop, 2017]
Proof that their now superceded farewell, 2007's The Woods, was actually a turning point: great punk band to great rock band. Half the tracks on a placeholder they've long since earned are from The Woods and 2015's No Cities to Love. Tempos are identical, arrangements unchanged; there's not a gift cover or a new song. But live and new, the old punk material does more than hold up--it changes, not exactly for the better but for the firmer. If Carrie is our Joey Ramone, Corin is our Mick Jagger. And you gotta love how Janet dominates the mix. She was always the genius musician here. B+

The Center Won't Hold [Mom + Pop, 2019]
It took me more than a month and well over a dozen plays to finally hear this album as the extreme break Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker embrace and Janet Weiss wants out of. Misled by my mistrust of producer St. Vincent's polished professionalism and plain old art-rock, I was also put off--yet impressed as well--by the industrial drumbeat/cowbell that announces the title opener and then repeats every two seconds for the first two minutes of its three. But eventually I noticed myself perking up every time the CD began, because this wasn't just a hook but a grabby one--the grabbiest on an album that gives it competition straight through to the end. Though journalistic toilers seeking refuge from pop divadom may resent the album's musical efficiency, I find it meatier than either Charly Bliss or Taylor Swift, and those are records I like a lot. Moreover, it has politics from its Yeatsian opener to a closer that invokes both #MeToo and Hillary '16 if you want it to, plus "Hurry on Home" evokes an abusive husband as well as an abusive system whether Brownstein thinks so or not. Ah the elusive allusiveness of the hooky pop song. A-

Path of Wellness [Mom + Pop, 2021]
As a Janet Weiss lifer, I'm surprised to conclude that Corrie and Corin are better off without her. A quarter century on, both needed room to stretch out moodwise as well as musicwise, although there's definitely that--would you believe that occasionally this album is, well, bouncy? (How about listenable?) In this moment in their and our parallel histories they need as much room as their skill sets can accommodate whether addressing love's vagaries--which are doubly various when one of you has stuck with a single domestic partner for decades and the other hasn't. Then there's the problem of understanding how a home city whose laid-back hipness the right multi-talent could spend eight TV seasons satirizing turned into a culture-war war zone. The love songs concocted by the changeable Brownstein outnumber those of the stabler Tucker, sharp from the infatuated "High in the Grass" to the try-a-little-tenderness "Method" to the sardonic "Complex Female Characters" no matter how loudly Tucker's "Worry With You" resonates with more settled fans. As for Portlandia, the fragmentary "No Knives" evokes the p.c. quirks that from "Favorite Neighbor" to "Bring Mercy" are forgiven and all but forgotten as evildoers assault its tolerant streets. A

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