Five years ago, back when Sleater-Kinney was just starting out, the song "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" gave the band a bold statement of purpose that couldn't help but be noticed. Blaring out the title more like a proclamation than a chorus, co-founders Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker made a strong claim to punk's line of succession as self-proclaimed queens of rock 'n' roll. While such tongue-in-cheek attitude grabbed the attention of indie enthusiasts and rock crits alike, the music put teeth behind the conceits, streamlining riot-grrrl urgency and gender politics into anthemic pop like nothing else before it. Cultural critique rarely sounded so savvy, exuberant and intense as when Brownstein wrapped her teasing verses and inventive guitar moves around Tucker's explosive, thrilling delivery of a refrain that turned out to be the group's signature tag.
Above all, the slogan was a declaration of independence, since the two were shaping their group identity even then; forget the idol worship, forget the Ramones -- Sleater-Kinney has always just been Sleater-Kinney. On the band's latest album, All Hands on the Bad One, Brownstein, Tucker, and drummer Janet Weiss have come up with an even better theme song, one that clarifies Sleater-Kinney's raison d'être: With its dynamic point-counterpoint arrangements and slyly confrontational lyrics, "Male Model" sets a new standard to live up to, perfecting a sound and a message now familiar, but still unique. The tune marks the steady, subtle development of a group better known for its incendiary aesthetics and spontaneous talents. On it, Tucker's concerted vocals are more dramatic than intuitive, Brownstein's angular guitar lines sharper and better defined. Dead-serious but reassuring, the band gives a devastating reckoning of rock's status quo, at the same time putting its own program of change into effect. So when Tucker insinuates suggestively and undeniably, "If you're ready for more/I just might be what you're looking for," it's a call and response all in one.
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Raising the bar ever so slightly, All Hands is the trio's most complete effort to date, no small accomplishment considering that Sleater-Kinney albums top the writers' polls year in, year out. If the record doesn't quite possess the powerful immediacy and the striking impression of earlier material, it does expand the range of modes and moods the threesome is capable of covering. Punk-pop ditties like "Ironclad" and "Youth Decay" are harder-hitting versions of the band's specialty, whereas "Leave You Behind," its prettiest, most poignant song yet, opens up a new side to Sleater-Kinney. Mixed-tempo pieces such as "#1 Must Have" further the artistic progress featured on the trio's adventurous, underrated 1999 outing, The Hot Rock. Along with "Male Model," the track signals a renewed political commitment, which comes together around Tucker's rallying cry of "Culture is what we make it/Yes it is." Taking the lead by assuming responsibility, these models express just what it means to represent.