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Mother Tongue

Talk to the hand: Sleater-Kinney doesn't want to hear about playing it safe.
John Clark

The wail is always there. The songs are plusher now. They don't demand that you sit on the cold, hard floor. But somewhere, beneath what artists call "craft," Corin Tucker's voice conveys the emptiness of pure feeling. That alone is enough to keep Sleater-Kinney fans coming back over and over, no questions asked. The wondrous thing is that there's so much more, amply demonstrated on the band's new album, One Beat: the half-sung clarity of Carrie Brownstein's vocal counterpoint, the perfect-as-a-pacemaker momentum of Janet Weiss' drums, and the guitar parts, braided more tightly than the steel cable on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Yet, as we cope with the pain of a year like no other, it's the wail we need most.

Answering questions from her Portland home, Tucker sounds too exhausted to wail. The band has just returned from a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles to play the huge Sunset Junction festival, but press obligations must be met. Tucker's 18-month-old son, Marshall Tucker Bangs, however, is wailing away.

"Sunset Junction was great. It was really fun," Tucker offers. Although she surely means it, her mind is elsewhere. As good a mother as Madonna may be, it's hard to imagine her in this situation. Portland isn't Los Angeles. And even a wildly successful independent rock band like Sleater-Kinney can only dream of the luxury that accompanies life in the heart of the industry. The band had its chance to "go major" a few years back, but like Washington, D.C., independent stalwarts Fugazi, it chose to stay in a musical community that felt like home. Now that community will have another chance to return the favor, not only to Sleater-Kinney, but to Marshall, who will be accompanying his mother on part of the tour.

"It's changed my life a lot," Tucker says of her new role. "I take it one day at a time. It's difficult to juggle being a mom and being in a band. I'm lucky to have bandmates who are really supportive."

In a year that has made Americans aware of what they used to take for granted, children play a special role. We worry about their future. And we worry about their present. This anxiety comes through loud and clear on One Beat. But it is coupled with a daring political urgency. While some songs turn life after 9/11 into atmosphere, sensed without being spoken, others comment on it explicitly. "Combat Rock," its title a reference to the Reagan-era Clash record featuring "Rock the Casbah," indicts patriotism as reflex:

Hey look it's time to pledge allegiance

Oh God I love my dirty Uncle Sam

Our country's marching to the beat now

And we must learn to step in time

Bruce Springsteen's perpetually misinterpreted "Born in the U.S.A." deploys the same dark irony. But his much-lauded new album, The Rising, pulls back from the political edge, seeking instead to provide a healing salve for the nation. Sleater-Kinney's distance from New York may explain its willingness to take a controversial stand. As critical as One Beat gets, though, it largely avoids the self-righteousness that plagues much progressive discourse these days.

"All the songs are what we most needed to write about," Tucker says. "It's a very cathartic record, a very personal record. We really put ourselves into the songs and took risks with all of them."

The track preceding "Combat Rock" is "Step Aside," a horn-drenched song of hope that turns the soul in Tucker's voice inside out. Although the song explores the same post-9/11 terrain, where "violence rules the world outside," the effect is overwhelmingly positive:

This mama works till her back is sore

But the baby's fed and the tunes are pure

So you'd better get your feet on the floor

Move it up one time TO THE BEAT

There's a playfulness here, despite the seriousness of the subject. "We find it necessary to have a sense of humor. Otherwise, I don't think we would have made six records," notes Tucker. "We're just trying to show that side of our personality."

For fans who hang on Sleater-Kinney's every word, the band's attempt to lighten things up may seem strange. But the group has good reasons for warding off idol worship.

"I think it's something we struggle with, when people see us as infallible role models. We do try to show that we are three-dimensional people that screw up and are truly human." The irony in "Step Aside," when Tucker demands that listeners move to the beat, is not lost on Sleater-Kinney. The band's members know that politicians also want people to surrender to the beat. But the band isn't afraid to make music with a pulse of its own.

That's what makes the album's title so rich. The drums that set the record in motion on the title track have a martial authority but leave just enough room for listeners to step aside from the parade. And when Tucker's inimitable voice comes in, it's clear that we are being provided with an alternative to business -- and music -- as usual:

I'm a bubble in a sound wave

A sonic push for energy

Exploding like the sun

A flash of clean light hope

Even more than Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney now represents rock's "clean light hope." Music critics, from the illustrious Greil Marcus on down, love the band as much for what it stands for as for the music itself. But the band's members aren't afraid to wear the laurel of the Band That Matters Most to thousands of young people, particularly women, and quite a few aging rock fans as well.

This spring, while Tucker stayed home in Portland, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein appeared at a conference at the Experience Music Project, the Seattle museum of popular music bankrolled by the Microsoft-lined pockets of media mogul and weekend rock musician Paul Allen. Weiss performed for the adoring journalists, academics and music fans with her other band, Quasi.

Brownstein appeared on a panel with three other prominent musicians of the Pacific Northwest: Calvin Johnson, founder of Olympia's K Records; Mark Arm of seminal "grunge" band Mudhoney; and Sam Coomes, the other half of Quasi. None of them was comfortable on stage without an instrument. But as awkward as Brownstein must have felt, she eventually broke the panel's stony reserve to explain that playing music is a "purely visceral experience" that resists being captured in words. Music criticism, she continued, tends to make things neat and tidy. But she wants her music to "welcome ambiguity," not eliminate it. And that means revealing the counter-beat trapped within every beat, the double in every single. Pregnancy is the perfect metaphor: When that second heart inside you starts to beat, something divides within your world.

But the lesson of One Beat seems to be that you have to express the wailing inside you. "Sympathy," the last song on the album, is a departure for the band, a gritty blues tune in which Tucker thanks a higher power for saving her son. In the end, we get the wail we need. The past year dissolves into something more primal:

Look for hope in the dark

The shadow cast by your heart

It's the grammar of faith

No more rules, no restraint

The darkness is within us, in other words, but so is that "flash of clean light." And in the tension between them, something is born.

Asked whether it has gotten easier over the years to make her feelings public, Tucker answers, "No, not really. I think maybe we have more experience at it. But Sympathy' is always hard for me to play." Like all of One Beat, however, the song will be an integral part of the tour. "My band won't let me get away with not playing it."

Expect Sleater-Kinney and its fans to be born again and again.


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