Albums We Love: Sleater-Kinney - "One Beat"

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As a nascent blogger (in other words, a music reviewer for my college newspaper), I had to go and buy Sleater-Kinney's album to review it. And now, looking back over that review (almost 10 years later), what strikes me isn't just the embryonic pretension in my writing:
Ah, Oregon! That edenic northwestern state with forests stretching for miles, mountains jutting against the sea and female punk rockers bashing out political diddies worthy of the late Paul Wellstone.
Nor the overly romantic sensibility:
“One Beat” sounds like a symphony with a copy of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” tucked under its arm, screaming "Since when is skepticism un-American?"
But rather how this album has stuck with me as the epitome of what an album should be. What a great album is capable of, and probably most importantly, why music is necessary and essential.

Released in August 2002, One Beat was the sixth studio album from Sleater-Kinney and their last on Kill Rock Stars (the group would move to Sub Pop for their final release The Woods in 2005). While Dig Me Out (1997) and All Hands on The Bad One (2000) are probably the groups most celebrated releases, One Beat is their most musically accomplished. Sliding between genres Sleater-Kinney prove themselves punk masters of the American songbook. "Oh!" is a surf-rock inspired love ballad while "Light-Rail Coyote" takes on urban sprawl with a snarl that few bands could muster and "Sympathy" is a shudder-inducing blues song worthy of Lightning Hopkins. Despite being an all-female group with no bass player (remember this is just about the time that The White Stripes and the Black Keys were reaching broader appeal partially b/c of their non-bass status), two categories that could potentially marginalize members Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss, Sleater-Kinney never seemed put off and their music was too good to be labelled. Additionally, One Beat utilized Weiss's Quasi counterpart, Sam Coomes, who plays a killer theremin, and a small string and brass ensemble. Like their east-coast colleagues Fugazi who turned to friends and other musicians in making The Argument, Sleater-Kinney's additionally instrumentation and songwriting made One Beat more poppy and accessible than their other records. The result is a sonic timebomb that almost 10 years later still sneaks up on you.

To understand the other reason that this album is so important, time travel, if you will, back to the summer of 2002. The country was still reeling from 9/11 and the political discourse focused on issues of patriotism, retribution, and anger. It was a climate that fed into popular culture to devastating results (see Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue"). Everything was very much black and white. With us or against us. And it was driving US foreign policy to the various quagmires and complete tragedies that we are still living in. One Beat is Sleater-Kinney's strike on the crypto-fascist cultural and political bifurcation of the Bush era. "Far Away" focuses on Tucker's response to watching the 9/11 attacks, which are juxtaposed against an image of her breast-feeding her newborn. While the polemics aren't subtle (from "Far Away": "And the President hides / While working men rush in and give their lives") they mark a significant cultural stand against a political atmosphere which drew us into two wars. To those who think that music (or art in general) have no standing on the political spirit of an age or are not efficacious in remarking on (if not causing change) One Beat is Exhibit A for the opposite. Using ironic sloganeering (remember irony was considered dead after Sept. 11) Kinney's title "One Beat" is a reference both to change as well as the beat of America which was demanding blood for out blood spilled: "Our generations moving to the beat now / But we know where we get the oil from." The beat is also the potential for renewal through the dismantling of violence, discrimination, and prejudice: "When violence rules the world outside / And the headlines make me want to cry / It's not the time to just keep quiet / Speak up, one time. To the beat."

The album ends with the sober, plaintive "Sympathy" which remains bone chilling: "I've got this curse in my hands / All I touch turns to black turns to dust turns to sand." It's a reflection of guilt and begging for change. As Tucker intones, we may not be believers, but we'll try anyway.

Buy it here


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