15 Years Ago: Sleater-Kinney Combine the Personal and Political Into ‘One Beat’
After fans had to do without Sleater-Kinney for nearly a decade, a two-year gap between albums now seems like nothing. But it was a big enough deal that, following 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One tour, guitarist-singer Carrie Brownstein felt the need to announce that the indie rock trio wouldn’t be putting out new music until deep into 2002.
A lot happened in between. Singer-guitarist Corin Tucker became a mother – although the experience was a rough one, with her son Marshall Tucker Bangs arriving multiple weeks prematurely. Drummer Janet Weiss made a record with Quasi, a group that predated her Sleater-Kinney membership. Brownstein made her acting debut in the experimental films Getting Stronger Every Day and Group, paving the way for future screen work in Portlandia and Transparent. Also, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, took place.
All of those elements would make an impact on Sleater-Kinney’s next record, to be titled One Beat, which began with Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss reconvening in the drummer’s basement. The trio worked out new material, much of it inspired by how their worlds (and the world) had changed since they last played together. They wrote “Sympathy” about Tucker’s struggle while her baby boy’s life was “hanging by a thread.” “Hollywood Ending” is about an actress’s body image issues. There are multiple songs about post-9/11 America.
“Far Away,” “Step Aside” and “Combat Rock” all came as a result of the political climate in 2001-02, with the last song seeking a more balanced long-term response to awful events. “Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?” Brownstein squeaks to a martial beat on the Clash-referencing song. “Since when is skepticism un-American?”
“I sort of have this romanticized idea of late ’60s and ’70s music and the time where musicians were sort of the spokespeople and were voicing opinions of dissent or questioning or using their music as a means of bringing people together,” Brownstein told the Washington Post. “I think the biggest reason is just how watered down mainstream music has become. To the point where I don’t really feel that people look to music as a medium that contains a lot of meaning.”
While Sleater-Kinney were sharpening their personal and political lyrics, they were also looking to expand the band’s sound. Working with producer John Goodmanson for the third time, the trio sought to push their experimental side. The melodies may be less evident than on All Hands on the Bad One (with the exception of the new wave-y crush and girl group harmonies of “Oh!”), but the guitars are more layered, the beats more multi-faceted, Tucker’s shrieking howl even more bone-rattling.
“The songs are more intricate and they required a lot more arranging and tweaking,” Tucker told CMJ about the longer creative process for One Beat. “Our creativity really channeled us to that place … It’s the complicated side of Sleater-Kinney, I think.”
Although the trio had supplanted their sound with occasional guest musicians on their previous five albums, never had their roster of collaborators been this extensive. Steven Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) contributed synthesizer and backing vocals to “Prisstina” while “Step Aside” features a horn section to aid and abet in the mashing of punk rage and soul rave-up.
Although a few fans and rock writers sneered at Sleater-Kinney’s continued sonic growth, the reaction was predominantly glowing. On Aug. 20, 2002, One Beat was released on Kill Rock Stars to rapturous reviews and the band’s highest chart position to date (No. 107 on Billboard). The album was a fixture on end-of-year lists. Time magazine named them America’s best band.
To promote the album, Sleater-Kinney did the usual club headlining thing, but also joined Pearl Jam as a support act in 2003. Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss saw the opening slot as an opportunity to play to audiences that didn’t necessarily know their music and bring their sound into bigger spaces.
Touring for the record extended far beyond anything the group had done in the past, making the next gap between albums almost three years long. And that time, they’d return with a sound even more different than that of One Beat.
Sleater-Kinney Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness