Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," The Hives' "You Dress Up For Armageddon", and Arctic Monkeys' "From The Ritz to the Rubble."
For the sake of G.S.A.T.M. diversity, I've made a major change in my iPod. I have enacted a new policy: One and Done. This has eradicated any band I've covered before, forcing me to search out new sounds to fill the space and leaving my Bands-Starting-With-'R'-Section a ghost town. In the weeks following this decision, I've uncovered some loves lost behind endless loops of Ramones songs, and the whole time has been mostly fun. Mostly. While it's great to rediscover an old favorite like Electric Six's "Fire", I find myself realizing that I like what I like, and I shouldn't punish myself for it. More to the point, my purge has removed a heavy dose of rocking my daily diet requires, one that "Venus as a Boy" just can't seem to fulfill. This rock starvation may be the reason Sleater-Kinney bubbled to the top this week.
I discovered Sleater-Kinney the same way we all did: as a 29-year-old man living in Chicago, I received mix CD's from one of his wife's teenaged assistants at an art studio. Prior to 2002, I had dismissed Sleater-Kinney from my musical studies. I figured I had the Donnas to fulfill my hard-rocking women band fix and didn't need another one. Maybe I was sexist. Maybe I still am. Either way I'm thankful this girl persisted in loaning me my first real dose of SK. They wrote songs which felt longer than they actually were. That's a good thing. The songs felt (and still feel, I suppose) full. After catching up on my own, the band released The Woods in 2005 -- the first and only album of theirs I would purchase upon release. Then they broke up, so The Woods represents the only evidence that I am just a latecomer and not a complete poseur.
I still remember my initial play of The Woods in my car on my way to an improv rehearsal. I was largely enjoying it, though I seem to recall some mixed feelings since none of the songs grabbed me the way "Little Babies" or "You're No Rock 'n' Roll Fun" had from their earlier work. But then "Rollercoaster" came on, and my world spun upside down.
To be completely honest, it was less the entire song and more just the bridge. There's a semi-longish pause after this mid-song rock out that's just long enough that in my post rock-out confusion, I thought a new song had started instead of the return of the very memorable opening hook. I love that midsection so much I even toyed with the idea of calling this particular article "Sleater-Kinney's Middle Section of 'Rollercoaster,'" but that felt unfair. That would imply that I only listen to that middle section alone, when actually the awesome midsection needs the surrounding slightly-less awesome parts for it to reach maximum awesome. Nevertheless, I will primarily be discussing that section here, since it's the one I think of first and foremost every time I remember the song. When trying to pass along the beauty to friends, and they seem initially unimpressed by the opening bits, I tell them the same thing you tell an audience at an improv show: "Wait... it gets better."
"The Woods" was written during a kind of "Classic Rock Revival" period for the band. According to reports, Sleater-Kinney had been looking for a way to break away from their more alternative punk roots and found inspiration in their collection of Led Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult records. This gave lead singer Corin Tucker's voice the chance to embrace its desire to sing like Heart, while allowing for the use of cowbell in this particular song. And while Sleater-Kinney didn't exactly create the greatest Kiss song Kiss never wrote (that actually went to the Donnas with "On The Rocks"), they found a new way to bring their particular brand of rock through a different sounding instrument. It's still all guitars and drums, but their attitude had altered just a bit.
Their catalog remains full of many great mid-song breakdowns, but nothing feels quite as volcanic the breakdown in "Rollercoaster." Sometimes I'll judge a song's greatness by how many moments worthy of a volume cranking it possesses, but this is the first song where the cranking moment feels initiated by the band itself. After the second chorus at 1:45, the buzz-saw guitar kicks in, the drums thunder and everything gets dumped out of the punch bowl. We've all heard songs mixed with the needles in the red, but the needles for "Rollercoaster" go more red than Oklahoma during election season (Thankyouverymuch). Never underestimate the power of loud. Sometimes that's all you need. And often times loud demands more loud.
During this fit of ass blast rock, we get the titular -- line first from Tucker, then from the enchanting back-up vocals. By the end of this section, the only other parts of Tucker's lyrics I ever pick out are the "You sit on me, I sit on you," but I might only pick that out because I'm a man and she's a woman and as a man I never miss women saying phrases like this. Even now I sense a female voice in my neighborhood has said something similar, and my ears are perked like a dog's.
The rest of the central lyrics are incomprehensible, and that's great. This allows the backing vocals to rise into prevalence, and the song to reach its potential. We can barely follow the actual lyrics, but we sure as hell can sing "Rock 'n' Rollercoastaaaaaaah" over and over, and that's rock 'n' roll in a nutshell: repeating mindless catchy bits over and over, smiling more and more every time. These backing vocals are what I call "Cheerleader vocals," and it's where my rampant sexism finds new exciting outlets.
I first conceived of these "Cheerleader vocals" because they just sounded like cheerleaders saying "Rock 'n' Rollercoaster!" over and over, but I suppose it's unfair of me to assume that all cheerleaders are women, and that the women in this particular song are cheerleaders. Put simply, they reminded me of cheerleaders because they were female voices. That's all. Nevertheless, I think the title fits perfectly because they actually do lead us in some fashion of organized yelling, which is the whole point of cheerleading. These vocals beautiful in their femininity. Sleater-Kinney sets their B.O.C.-style song apart from "Don't Fear the Reaper" simply by virtue of existing as women of rock.
So congratulations, Sleater-Kinney. You have just successfully rocked your way into a year-long retirement from my playlist. I'll see you in a year.
Inevitable Video Note:I could only find a live version of the song, so that will have to do. In this particular version, Carrie Brownstein supplies the lyrics to the aforementioned bad-ass bridge instead of Tucker, but I'm convinced this was a decision made for live performances. I'm sure that's not her on the studio track. However, I am 100% positive Janet Weiss chipped in either way.