Hurts So Good

On the three-year anniversary of Kurt Cobain's self-crucifixion, Sleater-Kinney inspires epiphany.

Published April 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

It can happen when you walk into a bar, turn on the radio or put on a record, and a
song "cuts you in half." That's how English writer Jon Savage describes that
moment when music is so good it hurts. In the weeks since I heard him
say that at a conference on "Music and Myth," I haven't been able get those words
out of my head. Cuts you in half. Those perfect instants of total engagement with
sound, then, aren't so much rock 'n' roll as slice 'n' dice: supreme acts of
violence against distraction, apathy, boredom and fatigue. If that's what
you're looking for (and apparently not everyone is, given the popularity of the
wallpaper surround-sounds of the ambient genres), then punk's switchblade
swiftness will usually yield the most bang for the buck. Savage said that he
got bisected by stumbling into the Clash two decades ago. Once you've been
hacked up by a band, you're scarred for life.

Last year, music barely broke the skin. Maybe I was just looking for murder
in all the wrong places, but it seemed like every time I turned on the radio,
all I heard was the Fugees doing "Killing Me Softly." The only hatchet job
worth a tourniquet was Sleater-Kinney's perfectly titled "Call the
Doctor." Listen to singer Corin Tucker and all you can see is red.
Her voice is the color and texture of blood, somehow glossy and
earthy at the same time. When she sang lines like "Throw away those old
records," she had a knife at my throat. When there's a blade at your
jugular like that, all you can think about is that you don't want to die.

If "Call the Doctor" cut me in half, then Sleater-Kinney's new release, "Dig Me Out," is another kind of record, the kind that puts you back
together again. I hesitate to speak of it in the singular; it's really two
records at once because of the way it superimposes pop pleasures onto punk
revolt. It's as red as "Call the Doctor," but this one's stained with
lipstick instead of blood. It's sexier, and unafraid of dumb-fun girl-group wordplay like
"dum dum ditty." These songs are about listening to records, about dancing,
about the kind of crush that owns up to admissions like "You're the one that
I want" in "Dance Song '97."

All the way through the album's most devastating number, "Words and
Guitar," they have you convinced those are the only two things you'll ever
need. One second, Tucker's stabbing at you with
"Come on and turn! turn! it up!" backed by sparse, ice-pick riffs. And suddenly, she shifts into reverie, moaning, "I dream of quiet songs" as guitars chime with sweet, going-to-the-chapel
romance. But the band's best moments come when Tucker and her
hard-boiled partner in crime, Carrie Brownstein, are both talking at once. As
Tucker lurches between rock about love and love for rock, Brownstein acts as the band's social conscience, rapping beneath her. You have to shove your ear into the speaker to catch all her words: "Either you want it or you don't/Either you come or you won't." Come as you are? Well, fine -- but don't just stand there.

Later in the song, when Brownstein spits out the phrase, "Rock it till you're
nearly dead," I think the key word is nearly. It can't be just a
coincidence that the "Dig Me Out" release date is April 8. Sleater-Kinney's
Olympia, Wash., label is called Kill Rock Stars, after all, and April 8 is the third
anniversary of Olympia's most famous ex-resident's death. I can't help but
wonder if the label's name was on Kurt Cobain's lips when he put a gun to his
rock star head.

When I heard Savage say "cuts you in half," it was Cobain's voice that shot through my mind. He'll always be my own private executioner,
not just because of his punk guts or his pop glee, but because I know what
it's like to have too many country songs in your heart. It wasn't
rock 'n' roll that killed him, it was ancient American dread -- the kind that
comes from crummy little wastelands like Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen, the
kind that surfaces when Hank Williams moans "I'm so lonesome I could die."
Cobain fell in love with the Raincoats' punk heart and admired Cheap Trick's
classic feel-good pop, but ultimately couldn't escape the sad-eyed country
blues. His greatest contribution might have been the pop-punk hybrid "Smells
Like Teen Spirit," but his most convincing was the old-timey death rattle of
"Where Did You Sleep Last Night."

People forget that Nirvana took off from Olympia, not Seattle. Cobain was
already an adult when he moved from grisly Aberdeen to riotous Olympia, and I
think he just moved there too late. But listening to "Dig Me Out," it sounds like Tucker got there just in time. The pure joy of her Olympia-bred voice is that it lacks
any sense of country self-pity. It's all strength and sex and giddy with
scorn, and it's the first voice I've heard since Cobain died that matters as
much as his. For anyone cut in half by Cobain, April 8 is a day of
mourning. But this year, when "Dig Me Out" comes out, it becomes a kind
of rock 'n' roll Easter. One of Sleater-Kinney's new songs is called "The
Drama You've Been Craving." And they don't just play it -- they deliver.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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