Album: One Beat
To the extent that I have a favorite Sleater-Kinney album, it’s 2002’s One Beat, which features big guitar and voice songs like “Oh,” “Step Aside” and “O2.” One Beat has always been framed as an album that was their response to the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Or, more accurately, their response to our country’s response. Twenty years later, it’s hard to overestimate just how fucked up both 9/11 and the way we instantly went into bloodthirsty, jingoist mode really were. Fuck this century.
They tell us there are only two sides to be on
If you are on our side, you’re right, if not you’re wrong
But are we innocent, the paragons of good?
Is our guilt erased by the pain that we’ve endured, endured?
Hey, look, it’s time to pledge allegiance
I love my dirty Uncle Sam
Our country’s marching to the beat now
And we must learn to step in time
Those are the opening verses — Carrie Brownstein sings the first one, Corin Tucker the second one — to my favorite song on One Beat (and my favorite Sleater-Kinney song full stop) “Combat Rock,” which I was going to joke was named after the worst Clash album, but that’s not right, of course, given that the worst Clash album has always been Cut The Crap. Which also would have been a great name for this song.
“Combat Rock” opens with the sound of Carrie and Corin’s guitars wrapped around each other in a way where it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins, while Janet Weiss is playing a snare-oriented martial beat, which musically is the Clashiest thing in the song — in her memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Brownstein likens it to their version of a Clash reggae song, which, sure why not — and adds a sense of both danger and restraint as Carrie and Corin continue broadsiding.
Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
Dissent’s not treason, but they talk like it’s the same
Those who disagree are afraid to show their face, their face
Let’s break out our old machines now
It sure is good to see them run again
Oh, gentlemen, start your engines
And we know where we get the oil from
And now, my confession: it wasn’t the title or the lyrics or even the drumming that made me love “Combat Rock” so much — I mean, the lyrics aren’t the most intelligible in the world — but rather the guitar hook that Carrie Brownstein busts out for the chorus. It’s a twisting curlicue almost carnivalesque lick that corkscrewed it way into my brain like something from early an Pavement record. It’s one of those licks that are so catchy that you can sing along with it, which is what Carrie does with her counterpoint during the chorus, being Jimmy Page and Robert Plant at the same time.
Are you feeling all right now?
(Is this why we unite?)
Paint myself red, white, blue
(There are reasons to unite)
Are you singing let’s fight now?
(If you hate this time)
Innocent people die, uh oh
(Remember, we are the time)
The last minute of the nearly five-minute song is dominated by this utterly delirious combination of guitar lick and vocals bouncing around each other, and I am there for it each and every time.
And the fact that I eventually discovered all of this rock ‘n’ roll goodness is attached to a “go fuck yourself, George Bush & Dick Cheney” lyric just made “Combat Rock” that much better to me, and naturally it meant that this song was never going to be played on the radio in 2002. I mean, they banned “Imagine” for fuck’s sake. Which is fine, because it was never going to be played on the radio — outside of college radio, of course — anyways.
That said, because their momentum was ever forward, and their target audience shared their politics, One Beat was the highest-charting Sleater-Kinney album to date, making it all the way to #107 — though it was #5 on Billboard’s Indie Charts — and ended up at #5 in the Pazz & Jop critics poll.
“Combat Rock” live in 2005
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