The Complicatist : Sleater-Kinney & other stuff

Remembering the greatest band in the whole wide world
by Gordon Campbell

Musicians can be troubled souls, even assholes at times. The picture (left) is of Jimmy Donley, who would have to be THE musician you most definitely would not ever want to run into, drunk or sober. Here at Werewolf, we tend to have an open door policy to musical genius, no matter how obnoxious the person may be. The arbitrary exception being Jerry Lee Lewis, whose track record as a murderous creep over-rides all other factors, for me at least. Since this is the 50th edition of Werewolf, this column is a kind of mixtape for you – the readers! – of random tracks that happen to be on the home playlist this week. Including Sleater-Kinney.

1. Jimmy Donley : “Think It Over” “I’m To Blame” etc. By all accounts, Jimmy Donley was not a nice person. Five times married by the time he committed suicide at the age of 34 in 1963, Donley was notorious for his heavy drinking and for the “red mist” that would then envelop him, culminating in extreme violence towards spouses, friends and enemies alike. There are even stories of him beating up and robbing people who came to his gigs. Allegedly, he had his quieter side. After his mother died in 1962, there are stories of Donley strumming his guitar and singing all night on her gravestone, with a bottle of whiskey by his side.

Despite the chaos of his short life, Donley’s music endures. His pal Fats Domino recorded seven of his songs and on his best days, Donley could sound like a Louisiana version of Hank Williams. If you check out the doom-laden “I’m To Blame” track below, he could live up to the comparison. If you want to go any further, the In The Key Of Heartbreak album (on the fine UK label Ace) offers a collection of Donley’s studio work, demos and cover versions.

I’ve also linked to a 50 minute clip filmed in 1974 at the cemetery where Donley lies buried. A bunch of pals – black and white – gathered there to celebrate the 11th anniversary of his death, and the event is a pretty fascinating cultural artifact in its own right.

 
 

2. Zola Jesus : : “Dangerous Days”, “Sea Talk” Her huge, operatically trained voice is the main calling card for 25 year old Zola Jesus, born Nika Roza Danilova to Russian immigrants, who raised her in Wisconsin. Offhand, she reminds me of the 1980s singer Toni Childs, a different sort of performer yet blessed with similar range and power. ZJ’s breakthrough moment was the “Intro” track from M83’s hit album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming….

Yet to my mind, “Sea Talk” is the best showcase so far for that voice. “Dangerous Days “is a another great ZJ track, and the lead single from her new album Taiga .

 

3. FKA twigs : ‘Water Me’ “Papi Pacify” A few weeks ago, I featured the new single by FKA twigs (“Two Weeks”) in my Scoop column, but “Water Me” remains my favourite track by the 26 year old dancer-come-singer hitherto known professionally as twigs, and as Tahliah Debrett Barnett by her mother. The doleful transaction with which the song begins – from now on, sex has to mean a commitment or its off the agenda – is played out against a liquid, everything-coming-apart ambience, as the singer waits on his response – “water me” – so that she, and the relationship, can get a chance to grow. Or just have sex again. It’s a terrific song.

Understandably, the video for ’Papi Pacify’ has become one of the most polarising videos in recent memory. A year or so down the track, it remains a disturbing depiction of submission/dominance… How you read it (in the sense of who’s actually got the power here?) it is very much up to you.

4. Buddy Holly : “Dearest” “Learning The Game” Midnight Shift” The so-called Apartment Tapes were a collection of demos and song scraps found on a tape recorder in Buddy Holly’s apartment shortly after his death at the age of 22 – and finally released in their brilliantly immediate original state only a few years ago. A full account of the Apartment Tapes with a link to each track can be found here.

To my mind, “Dearest” and “Learning The Game” were the highpoints of those tapes, but I’ve also linked to a fairly recently discovered out-take of “Midnight Shift” from a studio session in 1956. The song was one in a series of risqué-for-the-times “Annie” songs, triggered by Hank Ballard’s 1954 hit “Work With Me Annie…”

 

5. Howling Wolf : Hidden Charms ; Yasmine Hamdan “ Samar” Willie Dixon wrote the melody, Wolf himself wrote the lyrics and he sings them with fine good humour. Essentially though, this is a showcase for his marvelous guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin’s solo is the standout, but he drives the whole track. For Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, her global outreach has been limited only by her refusal to sing in English. Memorably, she turned up singing a song called “Hal” in a café towards the end of the Jim Jarmusch vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive. “Samar” is from the same album, Ya Nass.

 

6. Lindstrom and Christabelle “Lovesick” Caroline Crawford “Riding on Your Love”
These tracks are self-explanatory. Norway’s Hans Peter Lindstrom has been a prolific dancefloor presence for the past decade and Christabelle’s languid vocals on “Lovesick” are the perfect complement/counterpoint to the chugging, insistent rhythm… Early this year I accidentally came across Caroline Crawford’s fantastic 1978 disco track “Riding on Your Love.” The producer was Hamilton Bohannon, an omnipresent figure in the dance music of that decade ; this track is his masterpiece.

 

7. The Julie Ruin “ Run Fast” ; Perfect Pussy “1”
Anyone who saw The Punk Singer documentary at the recent Film Festival will know the central role played in the so-called riot grrl movement by Kathleen Hanna, and her bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre in the 1990s. Among other things, Hanna kicked aside a lot of female rock performer stereotypes, and she inspired a young female audience more than ready for something tougher. Thanks to an undiagnosed illness ( it turned out to be Lyme Disease) Hanna was missing for most of the 2000s. “Run So Fast” is the title track from her 2013 ‘comeback ‘ album, with her current band The Julie Ruin.

Hanna’s modern offspring include the likes of Perfect Pussy, a New York neo-punk band led by Meredith Graves. This is an early track from 2012, but one of their best. Love that guitar, chiming delicately above the maelstrom.

 

8. Sleater-Kinney: “Jumpers” and everything else. Talking of Kathleen Hanna, Sleater-Kinney were her greatest contemporaries and eventual successors. Greatest ? Best ? Superlatives come easy, and they mean nothing. Still, it is my contention that Sleater-Kinney’s two shows at the Kings Arms in December 2002, and their January 2006 show at the same venue were the three greatest live shows ever, in the history of the universe.

I could go on about Carrie Brownstein’s beautiful angular guitar lines, Janet Weiss’ ferocious drumming ( Keith Moon, huh) and Corin Tucker’s air raid siren of a voice….Sigh. Tom Breihan evidently felt much the same way :

Man, Sleater-Kinney were just a machine by the time they made One Beat: Carrie Brownstein’s flirty sidelong yip bouncing off Corin Tucker’s open-throated roar, riffs tangling themselves up with each other, fiery hooks exploding out of nowhere. They were in that rare zone where all members of the band knew instinctively how to make each other better, where everyone is in some freaky telepathic alchemical headspace. And that’s where they needed to be; in a way, the band’s entire existence was just lead-up to One Beat. The band recorded the album in the immediate wake of two events: September 11 and the birth of Corin Tucker’s first baby. And all those years of greatness make the band uniquely suited to embody the anxiety and rage and joy and fear and longing of earth-shaking events like those, personal or universal. Whether they were furiously protecting their homes or losing themselves in the adrenaline rush of their own music, this was the moment where this band felt huge enough to swallow the universe.

The One Beat album was the great pop template for their 2002 shows. The Woods was the great metal template for the 2006 tour, on the eve of their breakup. In an interview on that tour, Carrie Brownstein had told me the looming reason: with Corin’s young son about to start school, she explained, the band could no longer haul him around on tour. Not a problem that ever bothered the Rolling Stones. In a nice recent coda for the ”Jumpers” track from The Woods album (and in a victory for investigative journalism in general) the city of San Francisco has finally consented to attach suicide prevention barriers to the Golden Gate Bridge. In 2003, journalist Tad Friend had written this New Yorker story about the GG Bridge suicides that in turn, inspired the S-K song. While this Letterman version of “Jumpers” is but a pale shadow of the tornado the song later became, the performance did memorably elicit some truly goofy responses from David Letterman. Such as: “Excellent! Great job! Thank you girls, very nice! Peppy! Exciting! Dynamic! Avant garde!” Yep, he says all those things. The look that passes between Carrie and Corin at “Thank you girls, very nice” is pretty amusing.

Just to wrap it up, here are a couple of tracks from One Beat. To my mind “ Far Away” was the only song about 9/11 worthy of the task. It managed to capture the disoriented feeling of watching something awful, distanced yet personal – in this case, while Corin was sitting on the couch watching the TV images with her baby. S-K combined sharp political observation (“And the President hides /while working men rush in, and give their lives”) with the realization that not even a national disaster on this scale can change personal realities (“Why can’t I get along with you?”) All of it on top of a monster Carrie Brownstein guitar riff, and the percussion…Janet drives it all the way home.

Finally, and from the same album, there is the blues song that closes it. “Sympathy” is not an easy song to listen to, but it isn’t about an easy subject. It deals with the premature birth and near death of Corin Tucker’s baby, and how despair caused her to challenge all her beliefs. Its an amazing song:

I know I come to you only when in need
I’m not the best believer
not the most deserving
but all I have all I am all I can
For him
I’d beg you on bended knees for him.
Precious baby, is your life hanging by a thread?
A thread I’m standing on, praying on today
All I have all I am all I can
For him
I’d beg you on bended knees for him
I’ve got this curse in my hands
All I touch fades to black
Turns to dust turns to sand
I’ve got this curse on my tongue
All I taste is the rust

This decay in my blood

I don’t like the doctor with the deep long face
Only wants to give us the very worst case
I’d rather shout out and shake him and do anything
For him
I’d beg you on bended knees for him
When the moment strikes
it takes you by surprise and
leaves you naked in the face of death and life.
There is no righteousness in your darkest moment
We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid of
And I’m so sorry for those who didn’t make it
and for the mothers who are left with their heart breaking….

Search for meaning in sores
The sentences they might form
It’s the grammar of skin
Peel it back, let me in
Look for hope in the dark
The shadow cast by your heart
It’s the grammar of faith
No more rules, no restraint
How angry I would be
If you’d taken him away
I wish I was wiser, but instead
I’ll be grateful I’ll say thanks
For the love for the joy for the smile on his face
I’d beg you on bended knees for him

Yikes. No wonder Sleater-Kinney still inspire such devotion. Despite Carrie’s subsequent success with Portlandia, it is this band that will always be the most treasured part of her legacy.