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Riot grrrl grew up on Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out

Photo: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images
Photo: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for riot grrrl to turn into girl power. By 1997, what had started as a provocative, politically charged underground phenomenon had been chewed up and spat back out onto a ringer T-shirt, a victim of its own charisma. Many of the movement’s key bands were gone or in the process of breaking up—’97 was the year Bikini Kill called it quits; Bratmobile broke up (on stage, no less) three years prior—but Sleater-Kinney was just starting to gel in the spring of that year. The band started as a riot grrrl supergroup of sorts, formed as a side project for Excuse 17’s Carrie Brownstein and Heavens To Betsy’s Corin Tucker. But it soon became the main focus for both women, as they cranked out a self-titled debut in 1995 and 1996’s Call The Doctor in quick succession.

Something had audibly shifted between Call The Doctor and Sleater-Kinney’s third album, Dig Me Out, released on April 8, 1997. The former is a great punk record—“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” is a classic tribute to those formative influences—but its raw, chaotic sound speaks to a band that had yet to find its focus. That would come with the addition of a new drummer, Janet Weiss, who would go on to serve as Sleater-Kinney’s rhythm section for the majority of its career. Influenced by the blues and the powerful style of classic-rock greats like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham (“What drummer doesn’t like Led Zeppelin?” she quipped in a 2006 interview with The A.V. Club), Weiss brought a more traditional rock ’n’ roll style to Sleater-Kinney, creating a strong backbone for the band’s sound.

That solid base gave Tucker and Brownstein more room to play with their interlocking guitar and vocal lines. Although both continued to tune their guitars down from a standard E to C-sharp (and still do), adding Weiss to the band forever liberated Sleater-Kinney from its lack of a bass player. Weiss’ precise, pounding beats filled the void just fine, with a little added volume from producer John Goodmanson, who noted in a profile of the band, “The awesome thing about having no bass player is you can make the guitars sound as big as you want.” The result is an aggressive, yet intricate dual-guitar attack that relentlessly plows forward with punk passion and danceable hooks, without any extended solos or self-indulgent noodling—or rock ’n’ roll wankery of any kind, even when it’s reinterpreting it.

Brownstein’s sharp opening riff on “Dig Me Out” serves as a thesis statement, an urgent warning to buckle up. The rest of the song zooms by in a panic, as an increasingly desperate-sounding Tucker sings, “I’ll wear your rings, your sores,” before belting out, “Oh god, let me out / There’s nowhere else to go.” Later in the album, “Not What You Want” resembles the Shangri-Las on speed, describing a tearful breakup in the front seat of Johnny’s car with both pedals pressed to the floor.

Tucker’s lyrics combine such relationship conflicts and confusion with a politicized take on the female body, as well as the transcendent power of the music itself, which is often the only thing giving her full ownership over herself. Without her guitar, Tucker seems broken, emotionally and physically (“Work ’til I can’t give / I’m a machine,” goes the call and response on “The Drama You’ve Been Craving”). It’s an idea that becomes literal on “Heart Factory,” which starts as an extended fantasy about feelings that can be turned on and off at will, until the chorus busts down the door with a defiant cry, “I’m not just made of parts.”

With her guitar, Tucker is downright cocky. “Don’t say the word, if you don’t want it done / Don’t tell me your name, if you don’t want it sung,” Tucker cries at the beginning of “Turn It On,” whose handclaps create a peppy backdrop to her lustful wail, wavering like the feeling you get when your legs are about to give out on the dance floor. The song has a cheeky irony mirrored in the catchy, bubblegum chorus of feminist anthem “Little Babies,” with its sarcastic nod to the Rolling Stones, and the emotionally exhausted narrator of upbeat anthem “Dance Song ’97.”

But Sleater-Kinney is also unusually earnest in its expressions of joy. The album takes a quick break from personal and political angst to celebrate the power of rock ’n’ roll with “Words And Guitar,” told from the perspective of the musician exorcising her demons through song. “It’s Enough” is an exhilarating ride celebrating the simple joys of dancing to your favorite record, culminating in Tucker proudly proclaiming, “I make rock ’n’ roll.” Here we must note that Tucker’s vocals are, admittedly, not for everyone, and that’s by design. Residing somewhere between a warble and a yelp, Tucker’s lung power equals that of contemporaries like Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna, and surpasses them in its control. While unabashedly loud and confrontational, when she belts it out she can express a range of powerful emotions—everything from righteous anger to pure exuberance to deep regret.

Tucker’s vocal acrobatics wouldn’t be half as powerful, however, without Brownstein as her co-lead. In many ways the heart of the band, Brownstein often takes the role of lead guitarist—as much as there is a “lead” guitarist in Sleater-Kinney—pointing the way with a scathing opening riff or popping up with the perfect rhythmic fill to punctuate a vocal line. On Dig Me Out, Brownstein also fully came into her own as a co-lead vocalist, developing the call-and-response style with Tucker that came to define the group’s sound. On “Heart Factory,” she handles the verses, playing the weary narrator hoping to rid herself of her emotions, while on “Words And Guitar,” she’s the devil on Tucker’s shoulder, tempting her to “Rock until you’re good and dead / Rock until there’s nothing left.” And on “The Drama You’ve Been Craving,” Brownstein sings, “I’m a time bomb / I’m a fuse”—as good as any description of her role as the band’s igniting spark.

That interplay was made even more poignant by the relationship Tucker and Brownstein shared off stage, which had recently ended in heartbreak. Between Call The Doctor and Dig Me Out, Brownstein and Tucker were forcibly outed in a Spin interview describing them as “ex-lovers,” a fact that neither of them had made public at the time. In her memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Brownstein writes of the experience, “I told my dad that Corin and I had dated but that we didn’t anymore, which was the truth. I said that I didn’t think or know if I was gay, dating Corin was just something that had happened, which at the age of 22 was also the truth.” The relationship may have been over by the time Dig Me Out was recorded in the winter of 1996, but the wound was still fresh. That’s most evident on the poignant “One More Hour,” a snapshot of the exact moment when you know that while you might always love someone, you won‘t always be with them, delivered over skittish Gang Of Four-inspired guitar, and with Brownstein offering some consolation (“I know it’s so hard for you to let it go”) to Tucker’s anguished “I needed it.”

Toward the last third of the album, Dig Me Out turns even more reflective, waking up after the party with last night’s makeup smeared on its pillow and a pang of regret. Tucker’s vibrato-laden vocals and Brownstein’s spare guitar enhance the pathos of “Buy Her Candy,” a wistful song of longing after a perfect woman, as both a romantic and an aspirational ideal. (The narrator fears she can never measure up either way.) That uncertainty swells to epic proportions on album closer “Jenny,” where Tucker laments a lost love repeating, “Didn’t we almost have it? Didn’t you want it?” as guitars swell around her like the ocean.

Dig Me Out is frustrated with the suffering that women endure, but focuses that rage into a determination to survive. It embraces joy as an act of self-love, a defiant promise to get up, brush yourself off, and keep going despite the many painful obstacles that life throws your way. It’s a sentiment best reflected on “Things You Say,” a swirl of choppy guitars and churning emotions that ends with what could serve as the album’s manifesto: “It is brave to feel,” Tucker sings. “It is brave to be alive.”