Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Voices Carry

Sleater-Kinney and Catatonia

By Matt Ashare

MAY 15, 2000:  It's her voice that does it. Exploding forth with the strength and inevitability of floodwaters bursting through a dam, rippling with anger, swirling with deeper, more turbulent emotional eddies, registering fear and insecurity, courage and conviction, sorrow and joy all at once in rush of overexcited air molecules that translates to any language, Corin Tucker's voice is what distinguishes Sleater-Kinney from any number of other post-riot grrrl bands.

It's a voice that has continued to gain power and confidence in the years since Sleater-Kinney's debut, 1995's Call the Doctor (Chainsaw/Villa Villakula), a voice that has found renewed punk inspiration in the wake of last year's Rapestock even as she sets it to a ballad or two (replete with strings) on the new All Hands on the Bad One. And on what is easily Sleater-Kinney's most varied and musically sophisticated album to date, it's the voice of someone who's well aware that veteran rock scribe Greil Marcus has called her "the most interesting singer in pop music since 1991." This is the sound not of someone who believes her own hype but of someone willing to try to live up to such high expectations.

To focus on Tucker's voice exclusively, though, is to miss the point of Sleater-Kinney in the same way that, say, fixating on Mick Jagger to the exclusion of the rest of the Stones would be a mistake. Both the Stones and Sleater-Kinney are, or at least have been, rock bands in the truest sense of the word, which is to say that their best music regularly adds up to more than the sum of its individual parts. In Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein's guitar playing eschews straight power chordings in favor of riffs and rhythms that parry and joust not just with Tucker's guitar but with her voice. Like Keith Richards, she's developed a style that doesn't distinguish between lead and rhythm but incorporates elements of both into each riff, sketching out skeletal melodies while propelling a song forward, locking in with drummer Janet Weiss's solid backbeats without being locked in by them.

Still, the voice in rock/pop music is what carries the most immediate weight. It is the element people relate to first and most instinctively because it communicates both abstract emotions through its tone and literal meaning through the lyrics. The simple sound of a voice in all its subtle complexity can define one song as a straightforward blues and a version of the same exact song sung by a different kind of singer as alternative rock, or one as heavy metal and the other as punk. Not long ago I noticed that the one common thread linking many of my favorite bands and artists going back four decades -- from Dylan and the Stones up through the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, the Clash, the Replacements, Liz Phair, Nirvana, Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, etc. . . . -- is the vocals, which consistently fail to conform to traditional notions of what constitutes a "good singing voice," instead using their flaws to great advantage.

In Sleater-Kinney's case, there's a shrill, quavering quality to Tucker's voice that can make her sound as if she were teetering on the verge of a hysterical breakdown, that oh-so-popular "mental illness" of the late-19th/early-20th century that was used as an excuse to lock up uncooperative women. But she turns the tables by using her hysterical voice to deliver lines like "They say I've gone too far with the image I've got/And they know I'd make a mint with new plastic skin. . . . But I gotta rock! I'd rather be a ladyman" ("Ballad of a Ladyman") and "Will there always be concerts where girls are raped? . . . The number one must have is that we are safe" ("#1 Must Have"). The implication is that if these rational thoughts aren't crazy, then she's not either. Perhaps hysteria is just a rational response to an irrational situation?

Irony is also not a bad reaction to irrationality, and that's the secret weapon favored by Catatonia, on the surface a sunny Welsh pop band with a covergirl frontwoman and a taste for slick, radio-friendly tunes that split the difference between the Cardigans' songs of innocence and Garbage's songs of experience. Singer Cerys Matthews has a disarmingly sweet voice (i.e., more Nina than Shirley) that's just girlish enough to make you feel a little uncomfortable about the way it's also sexy and alluring. But it's what she says with that voice, as well as how nonchalantly she sneaks in wry lines like "Brace yourself for industrial cleavage" ("Post Script") and barbed observations like "The ad brags 'Buy bottled water'/But we know it tastes of piss/Should be getting our tampons free/DIY gynecology," that makes the band's new Equally Cursed and Blessed (Atlantic) more than just a nice little pop album. Once again, it's the voice that does it.


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