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Retrospective: Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out” (1997)

3 Jun

“Dig Me Out” by Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney’s music has a very manic edge to it. Verses and bridges are slow, terrorizing builds that explode into psychotic climaxes of choruses where screamed declarations and pounding drums are layered over driving guitar harmonies. 1997’s “Dig Me Out,” their third and most seminal album, personifies this mania more than any other record the iconic riot grrrl trio has put out. The savvy sophistication that is heard on later albums – the critically acclaimed “One Beat,” for example – isn’t there yet, but neither is the lumbering experimentalism that characterizes Sleater-Kinney’s earlier recordings. On “Dig Me Out,” the band is in control, but you get the feeling that it’s only because they want to be.

Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are interlocking parts that make up a sonic puzzle, one that can only really be described as discordant harmony. Listening to them together is an unnerving, if unparalleled experience that sets ablaze tracks like the angst ridden “All the Drama You’ve Been Craving” and the euphoric “Words and Guitar.”

But it is the more reserved tracks where “Dig Me Out” is at its most beautifully cathartic. “Dance Song ‘97” is a tribute to confused infatuation with a charmingly kitschy musical aesthetic and some of the most memorable guitar work in Sleater-Kinney’s entire discography, while the agonized “Jenny” is a heartrending narration that pulls no punches in its description of heartbreak and loss. Sleater-Kinney has, somehow, invented and engineered the impossible: the punk ballad. Poignancy meets disillusionment in a series of soft yet still very intense tracks that do the band more justice than a listener might expect after hearing 1996’s “Call the Doctor.”

“Dig Me Out,” more than any other Sleater-Kinney record, is a truly amazing album for its ability to exist on the edge, always close to tumbling over into sheer mania but holding it in – just barely.

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Album Review: Jawbox – “Jawbox” (1996)

26 Mar

Jawbox’s eponymous last album is a blazing exploration of the sonic landscape that comes with Selling Out to the Man circa 1996. ‘Jawbox’ finds the band ditching their ruthlessly abrasive brand of DC hardcore for a series of startlingly MTV-able post-punk tracks that sound more ‘Breed’ than Big Black. The change could be chalked up to Atlantic Records’ less-than-punk motives, but, more likely, as lead vocalist J. Robbins notices in ‘Spoiler,’ “vindication [wasn’t] what it used to be” for a band that, after three studio albums and five years of touring, were finally fully realized (with a record, aptly, titled after themselves) – but not through hardcore punk. ‘Jawbox’ is an inescapably commercial record with an inescapably commercial sound.

Losing the harsh discord that characterized iconic-if-messy debut ‘Grippe’ and critically acclaimed sophomore record ‘Novelty’ may have cut down on the adrenal force that only cacophonously ugly guitar riffs and rumbling bass lines can really deliver, but Jawbox is by no means any less articulate on this post-punk swan song. The cryptically caustic lyrics on the album are odes to drug abuse and dysfunction that craft a harrowingly beautiful alternate universe for themselves through unending tangles of metaphors in songs like “Iodine” and “Mirrorful.” Matching these lyrics with dark, seething music that taps eerily at spider-webs of verses and plunges into radiantly catchy choruses with a startling force makes “Jawbox” one of the best records to come out of the DC scene of the 1990s – even if it indicates a movement away from the scene’s hardcore roots and into more commercial territory.

Favourite Album of 2010: The Thermals -‘Personal Life’

31 Jan

"...a monster of an album that chronicles the delightfully moody intricacies of relationships with a brutal honesty."

The Thermals – ‘Personal Life’

(Kill Rock Stars)

The Thermals’ latest record reads like a sequence of poignant (if tongue-in-cheek) love songs, but it sounds like indie-punk dynamite. ‘Personal Life’ consists of ten songs and all of them have the same manic energy; there’s no slowing down, no pausing, and absolutely nothing that doesn’t deserve to be there. The Thermals have paired their ability to write absurdly catchy riffs with their penchant for the noisy buzz of guitar rock, creating a monster of an album that chronicles the delightfully moody intricacies of relationships with a brutal honesty.

Kill Rock Stars’ famous history of putting out unforgettable indie-punk records (Bikini Kill and Elliott Smith, anyone?) means that it shouldn’t be entirely unsurprising that the Thermals, who changed labels after their third record to work with KRS, have fully transcended their genre, no longer relegated to the dull improbabilities of being a good indie band. They’re simply a good band. The melodies buried beneath layers of distortion and drums might be obscured, but they are still very much there and most of them are close to genius. Years in folk (Hutch & Kathy) and pop (All Girl Summer Fun Band) music have taught the Thermals how to implement hooks and snares that are both sneaky and effective. The result is more than impressive; in an alternate universe, leading single ‘I Don’t Believe You’ could top the charts for weeks.

More than merely fun to hear, ‘Personal Life’ has an easy timelessness to it. With lyrics that rip apart the trite simplicities of the Love Song, the Thermals create a new archetype that makes no effort to hide the agitations, confusions, furies and (of course) elations of being in love. Personal Life’s cathartically messy narrative, equal parts self-deprecation and introspection, is a love story that pulls no punches.