So, here’s an album made by a Portland band featuring multiple songs about 9/11 and the lead singer’s premature childbirth. Lyrics include lines like “the president hides while working men rush in and get their knives” and “since when is skepticism un-American!?” What’s nice about this trail of red flags, all of which point to the album being an insufferable piece of righteous preachiness, is that its actually kind of a red herring.
Sleater-Kinney was a band that made their name writing a strangely delicate kind of post-hardcore punk music that relied heavily on instrumental interplay, complex rhythms, and a whole lot of eccentricity. Instead of making an insufferably self-important album about issues they didn’t really understand well enough to fix, their response to 9/11 injected their cult-ready music with a kind of solemn spirit, lending weight and inertia to their new songs.
Lead singer Corin Tucker’s enigmatic wail moves from from a brutal warble to positively operatic, on song’s like “Oh!” going so far as to become a yelp with a fake British accent. Lead guitarist Carrie Brownstein, who can be seen these days alongside Fred Armisen on Portlandia, is like an upside-down Keith Richards, churning out tight, powerful riffs that are as obtuse as they are immediate and compelling. Drummer Janet Weiss, possibly my favorite rock drummer of any band, provides almost entirely structural but endlessly entertaining rhythm, using minimal flair and negative space to make songs both cohesive and high-stakes. Listen to “Light Rail Coyote”, for example, to hear her start the song, along with Brownstein, like the engine on a Semi. One Beat is a absurdly muscular album, taking almost impossibly acrid subject matter and turning into very visceral feelings through the modest teamwork of three very level-headed musicians.
While One Beat is still as intricate and often obtuse as the band’s earlier records, Sleater-Kinney was newly imbued by the inciting tragedy with a confidence to lean into their strengths and dig into slower, heavier variations on their trademark rhythms. Thus, the album has a sense of serenity surprisingly well-suited to the feelings of lingering doom and protest the band intended to create and still manages to be powerfully entertaining. Even now, more than ten years after the event, the album is as appropriately towering as the day it came out.