Let’s Call it Love Part 3: Sympathy

A testament to mothers. One woman who nearly lost her child pens a song for those that have. Her voice aches because she was almost one of those parents who brought a child to term only to have them taken away too soon. She prayed for her child’s life even though she doesn’t pray. She has faith when she needs it and her knees ache from being bent, begging, pleading with some unknown force to not take her child from her so soon. The near tragedy is wrapped in four minutes of music where a woman whose heart is split wide open, aching, finds peace and is gifted with the life of her child, but she grieves for those who were not so lucky.

God please let me be able to have children

A nine year old girl in hiding asks for help. She doesn’t quite believe in the mystical, but she thinks it can’t hurt. She has good grades and does what her parents ask of her. If someone needs help she’s there and she thinks to herself she’s a good person. If anyone deserves to have a prayer answered it’s her. Her fingers run across a bible bound in black leather with a false name printed on the front- a name she rejects. She knows this book condemns her and it weighs heavily in her soul that she might go to hell if she ever lets anyone know who she is. She wants God to fix her, and with pain that shouldn’t be in the voice of a young angel she asks god for magic. The bible is clutched in her hands and exasperated cries of a confused young girl are lost into the darkness of the night.

Please let me wake up in a new body
I want to be a girl
I want to be like all my friends and I want my parents to treat me like their daughter
Please let me be a mommy someday. I think I would be good at it
I take care of Tyler all the time and I like kids
I’ll do anything you want me to if you make this happen
I’ll go to church all the time and be good. I swear. 
Just please let me be someone else 

She puts everything away and looks at the stars wondering if anyone heard her. She goes to bed that night and she’s excited in the same way she would be before Christmas, because she knows she’ll wake up and God will fix her.

I am this girl, but this story never came with a happy ending. Disillusionment and reality set in and I knew these things weren’t possible. I’d never bring a child into this world, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to be okay with that, and while I’ll never fully understand being so close and having something taken away like how Corin Tucker explains here I have the pang of numbness in knowing pregnancy isn’t even an option. So I sit in the darkness every other night feeling grief over something I never lost over something I never had.

But there’s this song that means so much to me when I’m feeling this dysphoric grief. The truth of why I write about Sleater-Kinney and why they mean so much to me lies in how they’ve become the soundtrack to my own survival. Sympathy in particular is a coping mechanism. It is my most played Sleater-Kinney song because I’m often at odds with my body over this one specific thing I cannot fix. I used to pray all the time, and I don’t believe in god anymore, but I still find myself wishing at night I’d wake up differently. Corin would sing “I only come to you, only when in need” and I still find myself falling back on those prayers I used to when I’m feeling horrible. I guess I still pray when I’m in need as well.

There is one part of the song that resonates with me more than the rest. Corin’s most powerful moment as a vocalist is in the bridge of Sympathy when she sings “And I’m so sorry, for those who didn’t make it, for all the mommies who are left with their heart breaking”. I listen to this song over and over again for those words. The optimist in me hopes science will one day catch up, and give me the opportunity to bring a child into this world, but I know that’s very unlikely. At least I’ll have this song to soundtrack my own pain and that’s better than being left alone inside myself. But I wish it didn’t exist, because no parent should have to go through what Corin did in fearing for her own child’s life. In a perfect world Sympathy wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t need to listen to it every day.

Let’s Call it Love Part 2: Beginnings

I don’t think there is any argument that Sleater-Kinney’s debut album is their weakest. It really isn’t even as good as previous LP’s by their former bands Excuse 17 or Heavens to Betsy. This album found Sleater-Kinney still honing in on their sound, but for the most part everything is all here. The riffs that play off each other, the harmonies of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and the lyrics that made personal experiences into something political are all on Sleater-Kinney. They would just get better and better as the years went by, but this is a damn good start, and a touchstone record in the riot grrrl genre. 
I mentioned in the last entry that Sleater-Kinney would not often categorize themselves as riot grrrl until later in their career. In 1995 it was an important movement that had sadly been hijacked by corporations and turned into more of a buzzword for fashion than feminism (something they would talk about on #1 Must Have years later). Sleater-Kinney’s roots were in riot grrrl and it’s never more apparent than their first album which could be used as a definition for what the genre is about both musically and lyrically. It has everything from the shoestring production, the raging voices of women, lyrics that centered topics like abuse and oppression of women. It was definitely a riot grrrl record. 
The album begins with Don’t Think You Wanna which is a vague song where Corin speaks about Angels and regret which would not have been out of place on a Heavens to Betsy album. There are a lot of shorter songs on this album that feel more like the band figuring out how to make music together and this is one of them. It doesn’t feature the harmonic qualities of their best moments which makes it a little forgettable. However, they move right into their first bona fide classic song after Don’t Think You Wanna. The Day I Went Away is about leaving. Sleater-Kinney have always written songs about departure of relationships and family with an added twist of frustration due to lack of love (One More Hour on Dig Me Out). This song has all the introspective sadness that Sleater-Kinney is so great at. Carrie pleas in the bridge of the song “please remember me” as she leaves. From a structural standpoint it’s much more advanced than some of the more punk numbers on here that come and go in less than 2 minutes. Corin and Carrie doubletrack the vocals at the end of every line and in doing so the song feels massive. They would get more complicated in how they would mix their voices on the next album. The Day I Went Away was one of the first Sleater-Kinney songs I gravitated towards, because I wanted so desperately to leave a town that was too small for my life. I don’t necessarily think the song is about a relationship between a parent and child but that’s how I took to it, and I still come back to it when I feel lost and frustrated over the fact that my own parents are never going to understand why I can’t be the person they want me to be or live in a place that would reject me. The best songs are those that have personal attachment. This is one of those songs. 
A Real Man calls back Bikini Kill’s Sugar from their 1993 album Pussy Whipped in its lyrics. I fucking love riot grrrl songs that take aim at the idea that women are tools for male pleasure. I loved when Kathleen Hanna sang Oh baby you’re so good, You’re so fuckin’ big and hard, You’re such a big man, You’ve got such a big cock, Push it in deeper now, oh deeper, harder, I’m almost cumming, as a total lie. Corin has her own Kathleen Hanna moment here as well when she sings Don’t you wanna feel it inside, They Say that it feels so nice, All girls should have, a real man and then responds with I don’t want your kind of love. It’s a powerful statement, and while it may not be the great song it’s something that punctuates the feeling of all riot grrrl albums. 
If there’s one recurring theme on Sleater-Kinney’s debut album it’s a feeling of damage in the midst of strength. The guitars sound muddied and broken, only to come alive in choruses to fight back with sharp edges to their sound. In a way the vocals take on this same quality where Corin or Carrie talk-sing only to scream at the right moments. HerAgain is a song that epitomizes all these qualities. There’s a feeling of sadness that engulfs this song and many others here. I think it’s one reason why I loved this album from the start. Joy Division’s totemic sadness was never something I could relate to, but Sleater-Kinney was something that clicked. Their music fights back on sadness instead of wallowing in it. Corin’s voice is aggressive here and when I was younger I needed something to voice my frustrations and her voice was everything. 
The middle of the album has the band running back over themes of sex in How to Play Dead (Carrie’s take on “A Real Man”), Sold Out,  and Be Yr Mama. What’s especially great about these songs is the guitar work, and it is at its most playful and complicated on Be Yr Mama. The band would make this song a live staple and it’s easy to see high with its high energy and the escalating riffing from Carrie and Corin. 
Slow Song is my favourite song on Sleater-Kinney’s first album. Music is at its most important when it can reflect a personal feeling in a person. I think that is what makes it feel more personal than other art forms. Your favourite bands and songs become a part of you. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Slow Song. It was on every Sleater-Kinney playlist I ever made. There is one line in this song that on paper seems so simple, but the lyric has always struck me as huge (there’s a similar moment on Don’t Talk Like on The Hot Rock). That line is “feeling so down, I’m feeling so down” and it’s just a moment where Corin spoke for me. She does that often. I don’t even know why this song is important to me. I’ve never been able to figure out why this song latched onto my soul. It’s just a slow song. 
Laura MacFarlane’s tenure in Sleater-Kinney is rarely talked about, but she was their drummer on the first two albums. Most people associate Janet Weiss with Sleater-Kinney when they think of drummers but Laura came first and she was always solid. Lora’s Song is the only song where she sang lead vocal, and it’s kind of awesome. She has a very different voice than Corin or Carrie, but it’s powerful nonetheless. The chorus is especially strong when her voice seems to break free and soars. It would have been interesting to have seen the future of Sleater-Kinney as band with three rotating vocalists but it wasn’t meant to be, and I wouldn’t trade Janet for the world. 
There are three classic songs on their debut album and the last of these is The Last Song. It is also one of the very best songs in the history of riot grrrl. It’s a song about breaking free of a harmful relationship. It’s closure in the screaming, gnashing, powerful voice of Carrie Brownstein. She gets final say in how this ends and tells on the person that was hurting her. It’s the greatest personal as political moment on Sleater-Kinney’s first album. It deserves a place on any riot grrrl best of playlist as well as Sleater-Kinney.

Let’s Call It Love: Part 1: A Look at the Music of Sleater-Kinney

I’m going to talk about every single Sleater-Kinney song ever recorded. This won’t be an objective analysis. This is a labour of love for a band that feels only secondary to breathing and water in terms of importance for my existence. I cannot go a day without listening to Sleater-Kinney and while favourite bands tend to come and go in waves I think they are around for good. I’ve said that about other important artists in my life, but then that’s the thing that’s so beautiful about music in particular. It can fade as you mature and grow older, but in that moment those notes and those words mean fucking everything to you. Music is like an attachment of soul and the one art form that feels like it morphs you into the person you are and who you want to be. It can lift you up in moments of need and fix all your problems in 3 minutes or 15 if you’re into progressive rock, and it’s a kind of magic. It’s a rhythmic alchemy brought to the world out of nothing by these god’s who stand on stage and produce life through sound. It’s powerful and Sleater Kinney feels like a direct reflection of everything I am. I think favourite bands always kind of feel that way. They belong to you right? When I’m listening to them they feel like something vital to my life. There’s no way I can ever repay them for the support they’ve given me so I’m just going to keep on listening for the rest of my life.
First a little background information
Sleater-Kinney would hardly ever label themselves as a riot grrrl act during their heyday (something they would discuss more openly after they went on hiatus) but their genesis is very much steeped in that sound. After all Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are the Foremothers of riot grrrl acts like Heavens to Betsy, Excuse 17 and Heartless Martin. In 1994 the first Sleater-Kinney music was released in the single You Ain’t It/Surf Song for Villa Villakula Records. They would also record two other songs for that label in Write Me Back Fucker and a cover of Boston’s More Than a Feeling. These first recordings reflect a band that already had their sound set in place. It was just rougher around the edges. 
You Ain’t It is lyrically about as forwardly-snotty-fuck you-riot grrrl as this band ever got, and it kind of rules. It’s the same kind of rock is not just for men attitude that many riot grrrl bands possessed from this same time period. What I truly love here is the wailing (I bet I’ll use this word a lot) braggadocio in Corin’s voice of not giving a fuck about boy bands. In 1994, and still to this day really, women are still seen as novelty acts in rock music. You’ll see the term “Girl rock band” get thrown around a lot as a buzzword as if it was another thing that needed to be gendered to the point where you had to separate women from men just because it was unfair to compare the two, and it’s bullshit. The riot grrrl movement in general was as much about feminism as it was about punk rock, but it certainly broke down barriers and told girls they could do anything in the world they wanted to and be better at it than men. In the sound of the song though it proved the band was already working out their formula. The guitars are already twisting and contorting around each other and Corin and Carrie are already using choruses to launch a harmonic attack in vocal and guitar. It’s awesome for reasons that don’t just align with my own punk rock feminism. It’s a hell of a start, and they’d get so much better. 
Surf Song is the b-side to You AIn’t It and it has the same roughness of all the Villa Villakula recordings, but unlike You Ain’t It’s brash riot grrrl aggression Surf Song feels absolutely light. What song wouldn’t feel light with lyrics like “Let’s go down to the beach today, Let’s go down to the water and play” ? Sleater-Kinney would rarely go for the type of sweetness that is found in this song, but it’s ultimately one of my favourites for that very reason. I searched all over the internet for this song so I could somehow have it with me at all times. I would complain to my boyfriend that I couldn’t ever find “The Sleater-Kinney Beach Song” and I’m sure I whined about it constantly, but oh the elation when I finally found it. I would download it (sorry you can’t find the Villakula recordings anywhere anyway), and have it forever. Oh! And the pen pal letter in the middle that Carrie writes to Corin where she complains about the band name and talks about new wave bands? It’s like friends in the back of a high school year book and my heart melts. The kind of friendship I’m lucky enough to have with one person. You know who you are.

The other two songs on the Villakula set are Write Me Back Fucker and MoreThan a Feeling. Write Me Back Fucker (great title btw) is maybe the least interesting song of these early recordings. The most notable thing about it is the title and the bridge, which just soars due to Corin’s voice. It’s almost kind of funny the previous song had an entire letter segment and this song is actually about a break up via letter. I don’t think they are in any way connected but I think that’s a neat fact. The first truly special moment in Sleater-Kinney’s career is their cover of More Than a Feeling . The song has that same DIY sound as the others on this label. It’s a sound I’ve grown to love in early riot grrrl recordings (especially Bikini Kill’s Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah), and followed Sleater-Kinney up through their first album the following year. There are multitudes of things I love about this song. The soft build up of the warm guitars in the verse, the harsh reimagining of the chorus with Carrie’s primal screams that she would make even better use of on Last Song the following year, and then there’s the outro where the guitars just sing and Corin wraps her voice lightly around the melody and it’s a thing of absolute beauty and cements this as the best version of this song. Sorry Boston, Sorry Nirvana.