So, nobody has done Sleater-Kinney? How is that still possible?
Edit: In other news, I'll have an update for this thread in the next day or two.
Black Flag are remembered as one of the three original hardcore bands who defined the sound (the others being Bad Brains and Minor Threat.) While they were great at hardcore, their sound developed to include so much more, such as jazz improvisation, spoken word, heavy metal, Sabbathy sludge and some pretty embarrassing jock rock. A vast majority of their work is (unfairly) ignored by their fans, who tend to discount everything after their debut album, Damaged (or, if they are adventurous, My War.) It's a shame, since Black Flag continually challenged listeners and each other during their 11 years of existence.
Also, you'll notice as you scroll through that they had awesome album art. Guitarist Greg Ginn's brother Raymond Pettibon (original bass player) did all the art (except for Damaged) and is a widely respected artist to this day.
Members of Black Flag:
The First Four Years – Grade: A (1976-1980)
Black Flag started as Panic in 1976. This is a compilation of their recorded work from the first four years of their existence. It shows them at their most basic, raw and insane. Keith Morris was their first singer, and while he only appears on the first four songs (The Nervous Breakdown 7”), he basically wrote the book for hardcore punk. Nervous Breakdown is perhaps their quintessential track, a Ramones-at-double speed riff with Morris ranting over the top, a noise solo and great rhythm backing. When I first heard this song, I just went nuts, and to this day I can’t help but thrash about and scream along whenever I hear it. It’s just visceral fun. They blast through all four songs in about 5 minutes, and they don’t waste a note. The essential hardcore document. After that, they started recording an EP, only to have Morris take off and steal one of their songs for his new band, the Circle Jerks, first album. The band re-recorded the next five tracks (Jealous Again EP) with Ron Reyes of Redd Kross on vocals. Jealous Again, Revenge and No Values are every bit as pummeling and intense as anything on Nervous Breakdown. White Minority is kind of ridiculous in retrospect, and You Bet We’ve Got Something Personal Against You is a rip on Keith Morris that has some impressively bad vocals. 11-13 (Six Pack 7”) is the next step. Six Pack has an incredibly awesome bass intro, and Dez Cadena is funny and crazy at once on the vocals. I’ve Heard it Before and American Waste are of a piece, two crazy belters. The Louie Louie EP was the second recording of this lineup, and Dez really goes nuts on Damaged. Many people would say this is the essential document of Black Flag. It’s certainly a peak in their catalog and just a great time. Plus, the songs are so short you won’t waste much time listening to it.
Damaged – Grade: A+ (1980)
Henry Rollins is an icon in the underground rock scene now, and this is where that really started. He replaced Dez on vocals after a brief audition in New York. He flew out to California at 18 and soon after recorded Damaged. He’s hungry and also insane on the album, delivering Ginn’s lyrics with force. Dez Cadena moved to rhythm guitar, which allowed Greg Ginn to free up his playing and really explode. This album is so full of noise and fuzz, it’s incredible. If you like grit, this is the place to find it. Fortunately, behind the great sound is a pack of fantastic songs. They redo Six Pack to killer effect, with Rollins really playing up the humor, and his take on Damaged is intense and a tad bit disturbing. Rise Above is one of the quintessential hardcore punk tracks, and can get the nerdiest kid flailing. They throw slogans at you left and right: Spray paint the walls. They hate us, we hate them, we can’t win. Try to stop us, it’s no use. Left and right, these songs hit their mark, because they deliver them with an intensity as well as a looseness and, at times (TV Party, an immortal) a sense of humor. Hardcore Punk at its finest, and Greg Ginn at his most compressed and frenetic.
Everything Went Black – Grade: B+ (1982)
Damaged was going to be distributed through a major label, but they weren’t exactly stoked on the lyrics or anger presented on the album, so that led to a two and a half year legal dispute that kept new Black Flag material from being released. They kept touring and playing new stuff, with both Dez Cadena and bassist/longest member besides Ginn Chuck Dukowski leaving the band to focus on other work. Since they couldn’t release anything under their own name, they put out this compilation of old songs (Jealous Again EP to Damaged era) with different singers doing the material. That means you get to hear Keith Morris (doing 9 songs, which is a trove for those who find him to be the best Black Flag singer) , Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena singing the stuff that we mostly know as Rollins material. The quality is up to par with everything else they did at the time, so it really comes across as alternate universe versions of some of their best songs. Keith Morris turns in spectacular versions of No Values, White Minority and does I Don’t Care, the song he wrote and took to The Circle Jerks. Dez Cadena shows that he could have been an able singer for a full album, turning in nothing but scorching vocal takes. These recordings are also different in that Ginn is the only guitar player, so the sound is thinner and less cluttered than on Damaged (not NECESSARILY a good thing, since the claustrophobia on that album was one of its selling points.) The biggest complaint against this is that some songs are repeated (THREE versions of Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie and Depression.) Still it’s a really awesome compilation showing how great these singers were, and how great these songs are.
The Complete 1982 Demos – Grade: A+ (1982)
And this is why I love doing these reviews. Despite the fact that Black Flag couldn’t release new music during the legal dispute, they were still writing and recording stuff. It’s one of the great shames that the lineup of Rollins, Ginn, Dukowski, Cadena and Chuck Biscuits on drums never had an official release. I’d always heard that, and after listening to the 1982 demos, it’s pretty clear that this was Black Flag at their peak. These demos contain much of the best material from the forthcoming trio of albums they released in 1984, only before Chuck Dukowski and Dez Cadena left, leaving them short a rhythm guitar and a strong bassist. The material here, while obviously of demo quality, is ungodly loud, full of driving rhythms and forceful playing, but with the rhythm section so much more in tune Ginn and Rollins were free to explore their strengths in ways they wouldn’t on record again until In My Head. The first two songs never received official release, and they alone are worth the listen: huge, metallic, pummeling prime Black Flag tracks with the propulsion of the early Flag and the sludge and freedom that they were just starting to develop. Every song that was later represented on an album sounds better here, but in particular the recording of Nothing Left Inside/The Scream would have wiped the floor with those who complained that slow, droney Black Flag sucked. I had not heard this before, and it’s essential: the best document of the metallic Black Flag I’ve heard, it’s huge.
My War – Grade: A- (1984)
A profoundly different Black Flag than we’ve heard before, in almost every way. Only Rollins and Ginn are still around from the early lineup, with Bill Stevenson of the Descendants on drums and “Dale Nixon” (really Greg Ginn) on Bass. Without Dez Cadena and Chuck Dukowski filling the rhythm section, these songs could have suffered from sounding too thin. Instead, they decided to slow down and sludge out. Ginn was a noted Black Sabbath fan, and their influence was never more clear than on the second half of My War. The title track is one of the band’s all time greats, a huge punk song with Rollins showing off his increased vocal control. Ginn is a stronger guitar player here, but you can’t help but miss the rhythm section when he solos. Still, I love every song on this album and think it’s one of the best Black Flag releases. Can’t Decide and Beat My Head Against the Wall both have killer riffs and Rollins delivers the pissed off lyrics to a T. He and Ginn were, by this time, a finely oiled machine and they work in perfect tandem throughout the record. The second half is likely what REALLY pissed people off at the time. It consists of three slow, Sabbathy dirge jams that sound more metal and sludgy than any hardcore punk at the time. You can definitely hear the Melvins and early Soundgarden in the thick fuzz and screamed vocals. Don’t listen to the hardcore kids at the time: this one’s a beast, even if it’s not quite as good as Damaged (or, apparently as good as it could have been, given the 1982 demos.)
Family Man – Grade: B (1984)
Hoo, and if you think My War pissed people off, imagine what this did. The first half is spoken word from Rollins, the second half is instrumental jams with Ginn and Stevenson, and the introduction of Kira Roessler on bass (sister of Paul Roessler from the Screamers, and later Mike Watt’s wife.) Rollins’ side is full of lyrical slams on society and descriptions of hatred and violence. If you like Rollins in spoken word form, this stuff is pretty damn entertaining: he has great delivery and keeps a good rhythm and pace throughout. It’s not essential, but certainly fun. The instrumentals on the B-Side show why Ginn chose to keep the more spare guitar-bass-drum lineup: his increased focus on jazz playing led him to more expansive jams with the band. These tracks are driving and hard, but are neither fully punk nor jazz. I enjoy them even though they’re kind of noodly and long, because Ginn has a great way with guitar sounds and really can play. The one track that they do together, Armageddon Man, is a long track with Rollins, uncharacteristically clear in the mix, going on what basically amounts to a spoken word excursion as the band jams behind him, tying the two sides together. None of this stuff is essential, and it will likely put off most people who would enjoy the regular Black Flag recordings, but I’m a fan of this one. It’s a bizarre release that is fun for its oddity, and that has some really entertaining and engaging performances.
Slip It In – Grade: C (1984)
I always remember this one fondly for the first three songs. Each one of them is an absolute beast, with Black Coffee sporting some of the best performances from both Ginn and Rollins. The riff is like a heavy blues, Ginn gets a great noise solo halfway thru and Rollins is just rant heavy. Slip it In is them being somewhat goofy, and also shows Ginn’s increasing lyrical fascination with calling out sluts. Wound Up is a high energy blast. But oh god is Rats Eyes terrible. Just absolute dreck, slow and droning and without any motion; it’s how critics described My War. The instrumental is fun and rockin’, but forgettable. The songs are all definitely a further step away from early Black Flag hardcore into a slower, more metal grind. The Bars pulls this sound off really well, with some great screams from Rollins, and My Ghetto shows how crazy Bill Stevenson could be on drums. Whereas My War sounded like a fresh take on their ideas, Slip it In just sounds like a refinement of the ideas on that album. At the time people absolutely hated this stuff, but it’s aged really well and sounds like the forerunner to lots of late 80s/early 90s grunge/punk. As a whole, Slip It In is better than most people give it credit for, but the back half isn’t terribly memorable and Rats Eyes is just terrible. Lesser Flag.
Live ’84 – Grade: B (1984)
The first live Black Flag record, and it’s got a killer, very representative setlist. They play songs from all eras and every aspect of their career, starting out with a lengthy instrumental jam (of which you can read more about in the following review.) This is the only place I’ve found where you can hear Rollins rip into Nervous Breakdown and Fix Me: sure, Keith Morris did it better, but they were so brutally focused live at this point that you can’t help but be impressed. The CD copy I had of this album had horrible sound, but the recent download I just did is much improved, even though Rollins vocals can be pretty low in the mix on some songs. If you can find the decent sounding copy of this, it’s a really impressive live recording. That said, it does not give as strong an image of the band as their later live release, Who’s Got the 10 ½, which shows them at their demented, locked in peak. Here, they are strong, but they were only getting stronger.
The Process of Weeding Out ep – Grade: B (1985)
The first song starts with a very 70s-era Miles Davis bassline. Yup, Ginn is definitely in jazz mode here. Whereas the instrumentals on Family Man were definitely the sound of a new band gelling with each other, here they are a force. Kira’s bass playing is huge, Ginn is even more in control of his guitar chaos, and Bill show’s restraint on the drums. It’s an instrumental jazz-punk EP with two songs over 9 minutes. Basically, you know just by reading that whether or not you’re going to care. If you do, this is the best of this stuff they ever did. Rare form, and great jams. The title track in particular is a showcase for Ginn at his best, with notes flying everywhere, sounding chaotic and completely random. If you think that’s the case though, check back to Live ’84: they open with this song and Ginn nails so much of the guitar work live that there’s no way this isn’t composed. Killer stuff.
Loose Nut – Grade: B+ (1985)
My War moved them towards sludgy, Sabbathy metal and Slip it In sounded like some fairly bad heavy rock. Loose Nut moves more concretely into the punk/metal field, with the band finally having a firm control over the sound. The title track opens the album, and it’s a bright and well-produced pummeler of a rock tune, with some killer riffing from Ginn. Modern Man would have fit in well on the first half of My War, albeit with better sound and a more interesting rhythm section. Annihilate This Week is the highlight of their post-Hardcore songs, despite the third verse’s embarrassingly misogynistic lyrics. To be honest, that’s the only complaint about this one: the instrumentals are excellent and heavy, Rollins is more in control of his vocals than ever, but Ginn wrote a crappy set of lyrics. Because the album is better produced and mixed, that’s more obvious, but it doesn’t much lessen the power of the album. This is one of their better works, and probably the easiest entry point into later Black Flag.
In My Head – Grade: A+ (1985)
I just read an interview with Kira Roessler, who said that this was originally supposed to be an instrumental album, and that Rollins hopped in and wrote lyrics on the fly as they played. The combination of the experimental, jazz-leaning Black Flag and the hard-rocking, Rollins-fronted group had only existed on live albums before, and only side-by-side. Here, on their final record, they brought together all of the strands they had chased down after abandoning straight hardcore. Unlike before, Ginn’s solos segue into melodic guitar lines that become guitar riffs that transition fluidly into choruses: everything seems organic and alive. The band is playing at the peak of their powers (Kira would be booted out of the group soon after because her schedule at UCLA got in the way of touring, and the band fell apart soon after) and they have the strongest batch of songs they’ve worked with since at least My War, if not Damaged. The title track is an astounding meld of punk intensity, jazz-style melodic improvisation and hard rock drive. Paralyzed is a monster of a rock track with some almost pretty guitar lines. Drinking and Driving and Retired at 21 are both just monstrous. One thing that stands out, and that Kira said in the aforementioned interview was a result of the original intentions for the album, is how low Rollins is in the mix: he sounds like another instrument, and it works to great effect. By this point hardly anyone was paying attention to Black Flag anymore, and they missed out on a masterful record. Their second best, and even then it’s a tight race.
Minuteflag – Grade: D (1986)
Not technically a Black Flag release, this is collaboration between the Minutemen and Black Flag, consisting of three instrumental jams and a track with Minutemen vocalist/guitarist D. Boon singing. Fetch the Water, the vocal song, is goofy and laid back, completely away from Flag’s music but sounding similar to something off Three Way Tie (For Last) by the Minutemen, if not as good. The first instrumental goes absolutely nowhere, but you can hear Mike Watt, the Minutemen’s bass player (and Kira’s soon-to-be husband) funking up the proceedings on the second track. However, none of the instrumentals ever really pick up or take off, and while it’s cool to hear these guys play together and I’m sure it was fun to record, the EP is a chore to listen to. As a whole, it’s fun enough, but a complete throwaway and my least favorite release by either act.
Who’s Got the 10 ½? – Grade: B+ (1986)
This is a recording of the Kira-era band in 1985, after they had toured relentlessly and become a collective performing unit. While this show sounds miles away from their beginnings, it shows that they were an absolute force of nature live, careening through their songs with equal parts precision and abandon. The recording is a bit lo-fi (but that’s completely to be expected) but they really tear through the whole set, shifting seamlessly between songs and jams. The lengthy interpretation of Slip it In into Gimme Gimme Gimme is the best thing on the album, with a lengthy rant from Rollins that gives the album its title. Black Flag never got big, but they did sound huge, and this is a great document of them not long before their final demise.
Thanks for that Bryan. i don't think i even knew about a lot of those releases.
5/11/12 - Cloud Cult - El Rey // 5/23/13 & 5/24/13 - Boris - Echoplex // 6/7/13 + 6/8/13 - Jubilee Music Festival
6/9/13 - Devo/GZA - Natural History Museum // 6/11/13 - Bjork - Hollywood Bowl // 6/21/13-6/23/13 - Solid Sound Music Festival - MASS MOCA
Holy moly! Fantastic work, B.
Nice job! My library has a bunch of Black Flag albums that I always pass over, I might have to check a few of them out now.
We're here to play some Mississippi Delta Blues. We're in a horrible depression, and I gotta admit - we're starting to like it.
Yes! Thanks Bryan! Gonna study this tomorrow when I'm not on my phone.
I really hope to get a Prince write up finished sometime this summer. Tall order tho.
5/12 - Acid Mothers Temple - Casbah
5/13 OoOoOo - Soda Bar
5/19 Black Angels / Hanni El Khatib - Belly Up
5/29 Junip - Troubadour
5/30 John Talabot - Echoplex
6/2 Bjork - Hollywood Palladium
To be fair, I was going to post that awhile back then someone posted that they were finishing their reviews of the same artist and I recalled the issue with you, Greg and Bob Dylan. It's been long enough, I might as well finish that set of reviews and post it.
If I start finishing the things I start, it's going to lead to a total identity crisis.
I thought about doing a guide to the Fabric mixes (excluding Fabriclive), but that would be a pretty massive undertaking considering they're getting close to 70 now.
5/12 - Acid Mothers Temple - Casbah
5/13 OoOoOo - Soda Bar
5/19 Black Angels / Hanni El Khatib - Belly Up
5/29 Junip - Troubadour
5/30 John Talabot - Echoplex
6/2 Bjork - Hollywood Palladium
Sleater-Kinney (1995) – Grade: B-
Corin Tucker was guitarist in one of the seminal riot-grrl acts, Heavens to Betsy. Carrie Brownstein saw them perform, was inspired, and started her own band Excuse 17. They started Sleater-Kinney (named after an off-ramp in Portland near their practice space) as a side project for those two bands, both playing guitar and singing. They toured Australia not long after forming and found Lora McFarlane down there, adding her as drums. This album was recorded shortly after they got together, and reflects their roots in the Riot-Grrls scene. At this point the band was a side project for two relatively successful underground bands, but they both brought their a-game for their first record together. Their punk leaning is obvious here: more often than not, Corin is screaming rather than singing, and she plays fast, distorted riffs as Carrie lays angular guitar melodies over the top. However, songs like The Day I Went Away and Her Again point to their ability to mix fantastically catchy vocal melodies, interesting guitar tracks and huge choruses. And they aren’t all hard rock and screaming; with a winking nod, they pull of two pretty ones in a row, the first called Slow Song. The production on this is pretty thin and the drums mostly hide in the back, and the vocals sometimes get warbly and rough when they aren’t screaming. And it’s also far and away their shortest album, at 22:45. It blasts past in a rush, and you’ll wanna toss it back on. A promising start.
Call the Doctor (1996) – Grade: A+
I wrote three different, unrelated reviews for this one because it’s such a formative album for me:
The jump between the first album and this is huge. Right away, the interlocking guitars do more than a regular rhythm/lead configuration, taking cues from Wire, Gang of Four and even Iron Maiden in their assault. Carrie’s vocals soar and the chorus so urgent and driving. Corin’s turn on Hubcap is equally stunning, a tense and rhythmic verse leading into a Pixies-on-steroids chorus that could have been a hit on alternative radio when it was released. For both Corin and Carrie, the band was now their main concern, as both Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 had broken up recently. Lora flew in from Australia and they recorded this one quickly, but the sound is much improved and everyone turns in a stronger performance. There isn’t a bad song on it, and it deserves to be recognized as one of the strongest punk albums of the 90s.
If Sleater-Kinney had an anthem, it would be I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. On it, Corin screams that she wants to be your Joey Ramone, your Thurston Moore: your badass rock god. They always toyed with the idea of gender, and one reason Sleater-Kinney always stood out so far above the rest of their peers is they weren’t a great riot-grrl band or a great feminist band, or a great punk band: they were just a great band, and they played like rock stars. The chorus to the song is in league with some of the Ramones catchiest tunes, and the guitars are filthy and booming. It also showed that Carrie could write ‘em just as well as Corin, and sing just as convincingly.
In fall of 2002, my family took a trip from Bishop down to Lancaster, home of crackheads, desert rats and Frank Zappa. My brother was playing in the High Desert little league playoffs. Since Bishop is such a small town, I always took advantage of a trip to any area with a population above 10,000 to check a Best Buy or record store for something to listen to. I had recently fallen for Fugazi, and some random review reading tipped me to the fact that I should probably listen to Sleater-Kinney. Best Buy only had this album, and it was 7.99, so I couldn’t pass it up. As we drove towards the baseball fields, I put the disc into the new CD player I’d earned laying rock for my dad all summer. I put on the headphones and let it rip. I sat in the back of the air condition, yet sweltering, car and let the songs blast through me. I had not yet heard X-Ray Spex or Bikini Kill or even the better Jefferson Starship stuff: my idea of female rock musicians at the time was Alanis Morrissette. These ladies blew me away. I bought three other CDs that day, but I didn’t listen to them at all during the late night, four hour drive home. Sleater-Kinney had me hooked.
Get this album.
Dig Me Out (1997) – Grade: A+
Eight seconds into the opening, titular track, it becomes obvious that this is a different Sleater-Kinney. The ringing guitar that introduces the song and album is already more complex than anything from the previous two releases, but the drums come in and things go to another level. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Janet Weiss, the third core member of Sleater-Kinney, drummer extraordinaire. The drumming on Call the Doctor was good, but Weiss is a masterful beater of the skins; she finds unique rhythms, provides excellent backing vocals and can both hit like Bonham and skitter and strut like Tony Allen. The songwriting has only gotten tighter in the interim year. The second track, One More Hour, shows how far they’d come in such a short time: it’s not quite a ballad, definitely not a rocker, but completely captivating and driving, driven by a grinding rhythm guitar and a chiming lead, and a caterwauling vocal take by Corin. It’s also a nuanced love song, something you don’t get too often.
The Hot Rock (1999) – Grade: B
The first two songs will cue you in: Sleater-Kinney are working hard to keep from being pigeonholed. The Hot Rock kicks off with two songs in a row that don’t feature loud guitars, screams, pummelling drums or charging rhythms. Instead, they give you chiming sounds, prettily sung tracks and a foreboding sense of darkness. The Hot Rock is, on its face, a minor key lament, but there’s an urgency to the delivery that makes it much more haunting. A song like Burn, Don’t Freeze! would have, only two years prior, been an explosive launch into a screaming stratosphere, but here the band keeps restraint and works on a grinding groove and clean guitar tones that really benefit from the more muted sound. The songwriting shows more nuance as well, but I can’t help but miss the brash, in your face Sleater-Kinney of the previous releases. A good album to be sure, but also an anomaly in their career for it’s calmness and clean tones.
All Hands on the Bad One (2000) – Grade: A-
By this point they’ve almost got a formula: intertwined guitars, vocal harmonies behind Corin’s screams. They are a much tighter band at this point, and they rock harder than they did on the Hot Rock. Ballad of a Ladyman starts out with a similar melodic intro that suggests the calmer previous material, but it builds into an epic pop-rock song with some soaring guitar and vocals. All Hands on the Bad One is the highlight of the first half of the album. It has a really taut groove and the vocals never get to the throat shredding level of the past. There is so much tension, yet the song is energetic and almost danceable. Just fantastic. They don’t stay quite at this level throughout though, as Youth Decay and #1 Must Have are a bit unmemorable. However, most of the second side continues the huge sound from Dig Me Out to great effect. Both Youth Decay and Leave You Behind capture them in nice, twee-with-umph mode, delivering sweet indie pop goodness. Another highly enjoyable album.
One Beat (2002) – Grade: A
Combat Rock was the best response to 9/11 that a band put out in its immediate aftermath. Whereas most bands avoided political statements (Bruce Springsteen put out the Rising, Neil Young had his song that advocated swift justice and I’m sure someone else was out there, but it wasn’t common) but Corin and Carrie made their most overt observations in connection with 9/11. Check these lyrics out (I was going to pull out a quote, but they’re too astute, so this’ll be a long one:
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, paragons of good?
Is our guilt erased by the pain that we’ve endured?
Hey look it's time to pledge allegiance
Oh god I love my dirty Uncle Sam
Our country's marching to the beat now
And we must learn to step in time
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
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
Are you feeling alright now
Paint myself all red white blue
Are you singing let's fight now
Innocent people die, uh oh
There are reasons to unite
Is this why we unite?
If you hate this time
Remember we are the time!
Show you love your country go out and spend some cash
Red white blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam
Flex our muscles show them we’re stronger than the rest
Raise your hands up baby are you sure that we’re the best?
We'll come out with our fists raised
The good old boys are back on top again
And if we let them lead us blindly
The past becomes the future once again
They question, they struggle with other people’s complacency, and they do it in a great rock song. This album is full of these juxtapositions. In addition to fantastic lyrics (also check Far Away for another strong protest song) they took some serious steps to broaden their sound. There are keyboards on a few tracks, a horn section on Step Aside, Sympathy is the bluesiest they ever got, and Janet Weiss’ backing vocals are more prevalent and varied. The guitars aren’t as blunted and sharp as All Hands, but that task is ably covered by the vocals and the aforementioned lyrics. They cover the rockers, the ragers, quieter songs and new landscapes in a complete and excellent way: this is the most representative Sleater-Kinney album.
The Woods (2005) – Grade: A+
They toured with Pearl Jam after One Beat, and playing in stadiums inspired them to write songs that hit the seats in the back. They recorded outside of the pacific northwest for the first time, holing up in Woodstock with the Flaming Lips favored producer. Oh, and they jumped ship from Kill Rock Stars, their label for nearly 10 years, to put the new one out on Sub Pop. With this much change and ambition, the Woods had potential to be a flop, a failed experiment. But, if every review above didn’t already tip you off, Sleater-Kinney were too good to fail. The Woods is their hardest, heaviest and loudest album, and a strong contender for their best. The Fox opens things with a howl, a wicked burst of distortion and overdriven drums. It’s a sonic litmus test: we’re loud, and if you don’t like this, you can leave now. The pure noise isn’t carried over to the rest of the record, but the sonic maximalism definitely is; they sound huge. Wilderness and What’s Mine Is Yours take the dual guitar attack from Dig it Out and All Hands and pushes it further than ever. They are more intricate in their back and forth, and when Corin howls on this one, she lights it up. Carrie gets more and better guitar solos here than at any other point in their career. The breakdown in What’s Mine is Yours reminds me of Whole Lotta Love’s solo, in that it’s dark, discordant, eerie and completely great. Janet gets her first lead vocal on Modern Girl (another overdriven track, this time with tons of fuzz on top of a twee-ish pop song.) The second to last song, Lets Call it Love, is essentially an 11-minute dual guitar solo that would impress Maiden. They achieved the stadium filling sound, and coupled it with stadium-ready rock songs, some of the best of their career. Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus after the tour for this one, and if they do nothing else, this is an excellent, daring and highly enjoyable way for them to bow out. They were our Joey Ramone.
Yeah, it's off the 5 right? Definitely have passed a Sleater-Kinney exit while driving south of Seattle on the 5. I'd always assumed it had something to do with their name.
I should listen to Call the Doctor again, it didn't grab me the first few times I listened to it.
I completely agree with your ratings for Dig Me Out, One Beat and The Woods. All 3 are fantastic.
We're here to play some Mississippi Delta Blues. We're in a horrible depression, and I gotta admit - we're starting to like it.
Nice work bmack!
OK Bryan here's your Gram Parsons.
The International Submarine Band – Safe at Home
45 years after the fact, the idea of a rock band playing country songs seems quaint and old fashioned. But in 1967, rock music and country music were on opposite sides of a rather polarized culture war. Rock music was for hippies and drug abusers, country for solid upright rural or southern Americans who wore their hair short and the clothes neat. So Parson’s idea to bring the two together was extraordinarily radical and as we know now wound up pretty influential, in both good and bad ways, on pop music for years to come. (note: to say Parsons “invented” country rock, as many do, is not quite fair; Dylan was recording John Wesley Harding in 1967 as well).
The International Submarine Band was formed while Parsons was a freshman at Harvard, where he dropped out after a semester and the band moved first to NY and then LA. This album was recorded in 1967 and is mostly covers (Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard) but does include a few Parsons originals including “Luxury Liner”, probably the best song on this record. This is a decent album but not the place to start with Parsons. Grade: B
The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Parsons left the International Submarine Band before Safe at Home was even released (note: this theme tends to repeat itself) and was recruited by Chris Hillman to join The Byrds, who were already huge rock stars with first their jangly power-pop (Turn Turn Turn) then psychedelia (Eight Miles High). Parsons steered the Byrds to country-rock and they recorded this masterpiece. The most striking thing about the record is it treats country music absolutely seriously, with respect and not as novelty or parody. The result, a mix of covers and originals, is a beautiful and stirring collection that should melt any country-hater’s attitude to the genre – it’s not all stupid right wing crap; its roots (and as interpreted here) are deeply human and soulful.
There are 3 Parsons originals on here, and two of them, “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now” are essential parts of the Gram Parsons catalogue. Parsons was supposed to sing lead on most of the album, but Parsons was, umm, under contract still with the International Submarine Band’s label. So Parsons vocals were all deleted in favor of Roger McGuinn, who does a decent job, but you have to wonder what this would have sounded like with Gram singing. Grade: A (but, in a way, also Incomplete).
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Gilded Palace of Sin
Parsons left the Byrds after just a few months (see what I mean?), along with Chris Hillman, and formed The Flying Burrito Brothers. In my mind Gilded Palace of Sin is the first truly great Gram Parsons record (since Sweetheart had to delete his vocals) and for the adventurer would be a pretty good place to start. Palace builds on where Sweetheart left off – but rather than treating country with kid gloves, they knock it around a bit and add some real rock components (electric guitar solos) and R&B elements. The hybrid may not have been born here but it was perfected here. Most of these songs are Parsons originals (or at least, he co-wrote them). “Christine’s Song”, “Sin City”, “Juanita” and the two “Hot Burrito” songs are among Parson’s best work.
“Hot Burrito #1” in fact is a fucking masterpiece in 3 minutes. On the surface an old fashioned country weeper from a jilted lover, closer listening reveals something far more complex. The music is as much R&B as country; the lyrics show a man not just mourning his lover but angry and resentful. Elvis Costello learned much from this song and has said so. “Hot Burrito #2” is its polar opposite, sounding almost like an upbeat Carol King song, full of confidence and swagger. As a pair, the tension in the contrast is striking.
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Burrito Deluxe
Gilded Palace of Sin didn’t sell a lot but it did get a lot of attention, including Bob Dylan and, famously, Keith Richards. Keith and Gram became good friends and spent a lot of time together talking music and partying; Keith learned about country music from Gram and it shows in the Stones’ music from this time.
So the thing is, Gram was so busy partying with his new friends he didn’t spend a lot of time on actual music. The Burritos were a notoriously bad live band, mainly because they refused to practice, ever, at all. This led to some discontent in the band and some lineup changes, notably with Chris Ethridge leaving and replaced by Bernie Leadon (yes, the Eagles guy). Leadon, being a polished professional, pushed the band in a new direction (like actually playing their instruments well outside the studio) and as a result Burrito Deluxe feels much more polished, but less inspired, than Palace. “Farther Along”, traditional cover, is pretty good, as is “Cody Cody” and “High Fashion Queen”.
Probably the most interesting song on the record is the cover of “Wild Horses” – a year before the Stones released it.
Gram Parsons – GP
Parsons left the Burritos shortly after Deluxe; the band carried on with Leadon in charge until he left to help form the Eagles. (For the record, Gram Parsons is said to have hated the slick-sounding, richly produced Eagles). Parsons foundered a bit, hung out in France with the Stones while they were working on Exile on Main St (and supposedly got kicked out by Mick for being a bad influence on Keith).
While Gram was farting around Chris Hillman discovered this woman folk singer playing clubs in Washington DC that he thought might be a good fit to work with Parsons. Thus Gram Parsons met Emmylou Harris and began a musical partnership that only lasted two albums but endures for the ages.
Inspired by (and probably trying to impress) Emmylou, Parsons wrote some of his best material in years: “She”, “A Song for You”, “How Much I’ve Lied”, and others. But the covers here feel just as inspired if not more so – “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes in the Morning” is fucking amazing, with Gram and Emmylou’s voices playing off each other; “The Streets of Baltimore”, which is old cornpone music, sounds fresh and bright and brilliant interpreted here.
This album is a serious classic and you should all listen to it. Grade: A+
Gram Parsons – Grievous Angel
Gram’s drug (heroin) use was increasing at this time and it is said it was affecting his ability to put out new music. I sure don’t hear it though, because Grievous Angel is total genius, building on where GP left off but (to me) with better songs and a more focused band. As great an album as GP is, in my mind Grievous Angel is even better, and is one of my favorite albums ever by anyone, which means I can’t write about it very well.
“Return of the Grievous Angel” kicks the album off gloriously, with Gram’s lead and Emmylou’s harmonies meshing perfectly. This is my favorite Parsons song and I think everyone should sing along with it enough times til they have it memorized. TWENTY THOUSAND ROADS I WENT DOWN, DOWN, DOWN.
But as on GP, the covers really make the album; “Hearts on Fire” and “Love Hurts” are amazing how Gram and Emmylou build a slow tension over the course of the song and then you can just feel it explode.. “My love has turned to hatred / Sleep escapes me still / God please take this heart of mine / Cause if you don’t the devil will / Hearts on fire, my love for you brought only misery”. You gotta listen to it to see what I’m talking about there.
Post script: Stop me if I've told you this one before.. Parsons died of an OD at the Joshua Tree Inn before Grievous Angel was released. Parsons body was being shipped back to his family for burial; but his buddies stole the coffin off the tarmac at LAX and hauled it back to Joshua Tree and took it to one of his favorite partying spots in JTNP. They then doused it in gasoline and set fire to it, so that Gram could be cremated in his favorite place. But they saw lights, got paranoid, and ran off with the coffin still in flames – the fire went out before much happened. I’ve done a little pilgrimage to the spot the past two years before Coachella.
Thank you. I agree on all of that, except for the wishy washy, Luxury Liner is PROBABLY the best song on the album statement. That song is one of his all-time great gems. It's like Love Me Do: not a totally developed statement, but a shot of pure talent and joy in a few minutes that far outstrips its humble trappings. I've listened to that song alone hundreds of times.
I also should have mentioned that the tribute album, Return of the Grievous Angel - A Tribute to Gram Parsons is also worthwhile - much moreso than those things usually are. Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Wilco, and usual suspects like that (including a great cover of "Hickory Wind" by Gillian Welch) but also may be the only time you'll ever hear Beck sing a duet with Emmylou Harris.