Sleater-Kinney have so many classic albums it’s almost impossible to pick just one. We could have gone for Call The Doctor, their breakthrough punk blueprint, the epic Dig Me Out or the more experimental The Woods, but it’s One Beat that strikes the biggest chord with us. It’s often characterised as Sleater-Kinney’s most political record, and it definitely is that, but as guitarist Carrie Brownstein points out in her autobiography ‘an exploration of faithlessness, of trying to uncover hope or meaning in a time that was very, very bleak’. These emotions were intrinsically linked with the political nature of the album, with many connecting the feelings that Brownstein, guitarist/vocalist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss to the fallout of 9/11. There are pointed jabs at the Bush administration, but they come in equal measure with the localised impact of the perspective, post 9/11. It’s probably quite hard to exactly replicate the same vulnerability that many Americans felt at this time, especially for us on the other side of the Atlantic, but Sleater-Kinney perfectly word those feelings.
One Beat catches Sleater-Kinney mid-experimentalism. They’re caught between their punky beginnings, which was emphasised by their previous album, All Hands On The Bad One, but also where they would continue on The Woods. For that reason, it belongs more in their late renaissance along with The Woods, with their new political commentary battling with their grassroots social commentary that established them as a feminist band that outlived much of the early Riot Grrl punk that dominated the early ’90s. A track like ‘Far Away’ is an example of how they made the personal political. Tucker sings ‘And the president hides / While working men rush in / And give their lives’ right alongside ‘I look to the sky / And ask it not to rain / On my family tonight’. Tucker brings in her new experience of motherhood into a song that might have been a cold criticism, going right where so many punk bands go wrong. Usually, political criticism is all well and good, but it can be more like the band is hitting you over the head with their message. Sleater-Kinney blur the line between what is political and the more personal aspects that dominated early songs like ‘One More Hour’. One Beat shows Sleater-Kinney experimenting with sound as well as lyrical styles. On ‘Oh!’ there’s an infectious synth that runs deep into the chorus and separates it from being simply another Sleater-Kinney song. Similarly, on ‘Step Aside’, it’s the most dancey Sleater-Kinney get, without even digging back into the synth again. They use horns, which you wouldn’t associate with Sleater-Kinney at all, but they completely pull it off. This is one punk band that wasn’t a stranger to developing their sound with instruments and genres that other punk bands would turn their nose up at.
Elements of The Woods begin to bleed through on tracks like ‘Funeral Song’ and ‘Light Rail Coyote’, which is The Woods in all but Dave Fridmann’s intense but ultimately exceptional production. On ‘Light Rail Coyote’, an ode to their new home of Portland, they open with riffs that wouldn’t go amiss from a Led Zeppelin album, plus the coda at the end which has Tucker and Brownstein demanding ‘Oh dirty river, come let me in’ in unison. The most memorable moment in the song is Brownstein and Tucker sharing the outro together, where Brownstein goes into one of her killer moments where she spits out a bunch of great lyrics at high speed – ‘And if you wanna be a friend of mine / Cross the river to the east side / Find me on the eve of suicide / Tell me the city is no place to hide’. One Beat unfortunately does not get the ballad treatment that Dig Me Out (‘One More Hour’), The Hot Rock (‘The Size Of Our Love’) and All Hands On The Bad One (‘The Swimmer’) gets, but the closest it gets is ‘Funeral Song’, which ends up as a burning rocker. Possibly the reason that One Beat doesn’t get the ballad treatment is the themes of faithlessness that it tries to get across. Whereas previously, these ballads would be a moment of peace and happiness in the face of despair, like the heartbreaking ‘The Size Of Our Love’, there is no chance to catch your breath on One Beat. It has faithlessness, but the flickers of hope aren’t enough to inspire another quiet moment. One Beat has an unease and a confusion about it that no other Sleater-Kinney albums have, and that’s often why it’s accredited as their political album.
One Beat is so often the black sheep in Sleater-Kinney’s career. It finds itself in the middle of their past and their future, drawing inspiration from both and finding confusion in the happiness of Tucker’s new family arriving simultaneously with the war on terror. Those conflicting emotions result in one of the post-9/11 albums that truly summed up the feelings after the attack when so many wondered about the emotions during it. The aftermath was far worse, as Sleater-Kinney can attest to, and their hopelessness is made worse by the popular support for the tyrannical administration that profited from it afterwards. We all know how it ends, but this is an important document of what happened in between. It’s not the most immediate Sleater-Kinney album, but it is one of the most necessary.
Funnel Recommends: One Beat / Light Rail Coyote / Hollywood Ending