Looking back at 25 years of the second Sleater-Kinney LP
The wide embrace that welcomed Sleater-Kinney in 2014 when they returned from an eight-year hiatus made it easy to forget what they had been up against in their early days twenty years prior.
Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein had by then established indie bona fides releasing records with prior bands, but that made leaving those groups on a gut feeling to write songs together all the more an act of going out on a limb. The Olympia, Washington, scene they swam in was generally nurturing, but there were still fresh wounds from the way outsiders had often misconstrued the recent Riot Grrrl movement that sprang from the college town’s vibrant young music community. “There is still a lot of Riot Grrrl activism happening,” Tucker told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “But I think it was just terrifying to be dealing with the way the media sort of co-opted what we were doing.”
The sparks between Tucker and Brownstein were too many and bright to be deterred. They followed instinct and ran with opportunities, which is how among other things they ended up finding their first drummer, Melbourne musician Laura MacFarlane (who went by Lora in the band), down in Australia rather than in their own fruitful back yard. Their signature dynamic of complementary guitars and contrasting vocals was startling and original, but its development from the declarative post-hardcore of Brownstein’s former trio Excuse 17 and the emotional textures of Tucker’s Heavens to Betsy was traceable. Some bands take first steps, Sleater-Kinney made first leaps.
On record, none of those leaps were bigger than the one between their self-titled debut and Call the Doctor. The two were effectively written back-to-back and released within less than a year of each other, the first coming in June of ‘95 and the second in March of ‘96, but the difference in songwriting and production quality is undeniable. Call the Doctor did benefit from what groundwork Sleater-Kinney was able to lay, but it still faced the same press and distribution limits that came with being on a small local label – Portland, Oregon’s Chainsaw Records, run by Donna Dresch. Despite four-digit sales figures, the album made an outsized impression on fans as well as a clutch of music journalists who pushed it to the top of some critics’ lists at the end of 1996.
Call the Doctor found Sleater-Kinney faster and angrier, more focused while also expanding their range of targets. Lyrically, the album in large part switches between three frameworks–the personal, the interpersonal and the sociopolitical-personal–but they don’t stay separated – not song by song, not even line by line. Key to their ability to convey different ideas at the same time are those dual vocals, providing what Brownstein characterized to the Village Voice at the time as “the conscious and the subconscious,” carrying on a discourse that careens from civil to heated to shouting over one another. When their words were not at cross purposes, they could be as formidable as a freight train, as on the opening title track: “Your life is good for one thing/You’re messing with what’s sacred,” sneers Brownstein as Tucker then swings the axe, “They want to simplify your needs and likes to sterilize you.”
One of the recurring talking points in write-ups about the band from this time was, naturally, Tucker’s inimitable voice. “The most reliable discomforter in the Sleater-Kinney arsenal is, of course, Tucker’s tearing, ferocious voice, and all three know it,” wrote Terri Sutton in that Village Voice interview. “Brownstein and Weiss call it The Tool, as in ‘Oh, Corin’s warming up The Tool.’” In the midst of its tremulous waves, it was impossible to think of another voice in rock and roll that bore so much raw power and intense vulnerability in the same breath. Having already been introduced on Heavens to Betsy’s Calculated and Sleater-Kinney, Tucker’s voice shouldn’t have come as such a shock, but the way she was now utilizing it was next level.
Twenty-five years later, the first strains of “Call the Doctor” can still send a shiver down the spine. The overlapping guitar riffs come in murky and disorienting, the beat is wound up and nervous. “They want to socialize you/They want to purify you,” Brownstein insists, with Tucker confirming, “They want to dignify, analyze, terrorize you.” It is the sound of being surrounded by threat and lashing out in response with all you have. MacFarlane would return to Australia after making this album and Sleater-Kinney would find their perfect drummer, Janet Weiss, in time for their next, but there is something to be said for the way MacFarlane’s technique shapes parts of Call the Doctor. It’s easy to imagine the title track being born a more strident rock beast with Weiss behind the kit, but the skittering rolls and rim shots pulling against the punk surges give “Call the Doctor” an appropriately on-edge rhythm.
AUDIO: Sleater-Kinney “Call The Doctor”
Tucker said to ROCKRGRL magazine of the album soon after its release that, “[W]e wanted to expand our songwriting a bit so we’d have songs that were still bare-bones in some ways, but have a really big sound, really explosive, where it can contract and expand.” Call the Doctor’s second track, “Hubcap,” exemplifies this, walking in backwards on a beat made of rattling fills until the bent guitar lines coalesce into driving chords as Tucker and MacFarlane (on backing vocals) storm ahead in unison, “You take everything/You take what I want.” Time and again, from “Anonymous” to “Stay Where You Are” to “My Stuff,” there is a physical shifting of gears from the verse to the chorus. All the more remarkable was that they achieved this effect without much more than the guitars and amps themselves, and one distortion pedal between them, human force instead of technical tricks.
Call the Doctor is a serious record, but it’s far from humorless. Case in point being the B-side’s triumphant kick off, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” The song is clever, earnest, lustful and righteous in all of two minutes and thirty seconds, and perhaps the funniest thing about it is how it presents Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore, two tall and gangly nerds who found their way to fronting formative New York rock bands, into sex symbols. The second funniest thing about the song is how after the second chorus that name checks Moore, Brownstein comes in cooly speaking the last verse like a blasé Kim Gordon: “We go downtown/Put on our best frowns/Give me a chance/I know I can dance.” “The song is about all these bands that are like the kings of indie rock,” Tucker told Rolling Stone that year. “There needs to be all-women bands that take that place. But it’s also a joke about jumping in and out of those roles.”
The structure of A and B sides is worth noting because, although Call the Doctor came out in the ‘90s and most fans at the time bought it on CD, it is not overtly frontloaded, and the vinyl format was clearly given consideration when determining the running order. There are two halves of six songs each, both starting with a bang, bringing the energy up and down and up again until their respective denouements, “Good Things” and the final “Heart Attack.” Punching out from the parameters of a punk record, Call the Doctor has the kind of ‘classic album’ arc that you know when you hear it, the character and momentum, the twists and turns from track to track. They didn’t wind up garnering comparisons to the Clash solely for their ideological significance.
VIDEO: Sleater-Kinney Live at Stinkweeds 1997
The general understanding still seems to be that in the Sleater-Kinney catalog, it’s their following album, Dig Me Out, that is the “[b]est place for beginners to start,” as a piece by music journalist and author Rob Sheffield determined in 2003. Dig Me Out was marked by the mighty addition of Weiss, brighter production and catchier hooks, and, in a move on par with the Replacements naming an album Let It Be, a savvy cover design borrowed from The Kink Kontroversy. Yet what starting with Dig Me Out misses is how the crucial manifesto of Call the Doctor informs and sets the trajectory for the LPs that follow.
To be fair, Dig Me Out is no less important just because it’s more “fun.” It was important to Sleater-Kinney that both their music and their means were accessible. They wanted their records in shops, they wanted other women to not just watch what they did but to understand how they did it so they could do it themselves, and they wanted to move bodies as well as minds. “The most important thing is that we’re making music that we think is good and is important, and that we’re having a good time doing it,” Tucker said in an NPR segment in 1999. “I think there’s a lot of young women that come to our shows that are just having so much fun…and that’s what it should be about.”
There’s no replacing that record where a band finds their voice and hits their stride, though, especially one as vital as Sleater-Kinney. Call the Doctor wields youth and insight as both sword and shield against the weight of the world, and back then it felt like it could actually win.