Sharps & Flats

Published March 9, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

There she was, Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker, planted at the mike all icy cool, belting out songs with fever and passion. She was onstage at San Francisco's gilded Great American Music Hall, almost through "Words and Guitar." At the end of the second verse, her eyes half-shut and looking no farther than the mike stand, Tucker somehow spotted something hurtling toward her. She seemed to fold into herself for a quick second. The thing, a big purple something or other, grazed the top of her head and landed between her and her guitar amp. Concentration temporarily crushed, she lost the end of the verse. Carrie Brownstein, still riffing away on her black Rickenbacher guitar, threw her an "Are you OK?" glance. Without missing a beat, Janet Weiss peeped over her cymbals to see if everything was all right. Tucker composed herself and finished the song, the last of the trio's main set.

As Sleater-Kinney returned for the first encore a few minutes later, a girl in the audience shouted for the trio to examine the big purple thing lumped on the stage. "It's a piqata!" she shouted.

"Is there candy?" asked Tucker.

"Is there chocolate?" asked Brownstein.

"Yes!" the girl shouted again.

Brownstein picked up the lumpy, oversized purple piqata -- which was shaped like a big guitar with a floppy neck -- and broke it open. Silver Hershey's Kisses spilled onto the floor. Brownstein gathered a handful and threw them into the crowd. Of course Sleater-Kinney had been tossing out candy all night, mostly pieces of "The Hot Rock" like "Get Up," with its whoosh of new love, the intertwined guitars of "Burn, Don't Freeze" and the riveting morality myth "The End of You." The crowd, a sold-out 600-person throng of bouncing teenagers and craning hipsters, was happy to gobble it up, along with morsels of the first three S-K records.

On all four of their full-length records, Sleater-Kinney are charged. Live, they're explosive. At the Great American Wednesday night, Tucker wailed vibrato, Brownstein shouted. The glances darted back and forth, the two finished each other's guitar licks. Tucker was cool, all eyebrows and big breaths. Brownstein was ecstatic, hopping around the stage, jerking her guitar up on the downstroke, windmilling just because it was fun. Weiss, pounding and shuffling and crashing, braided them together.

There's something about the way the three women from Olympia, Wash., create a sort of musical rapture so tight, so intense, that anything out of place glares; something in the way that each member of the band watches the other; something about how Sleater-Kinney matters enough that a girl in the audience would smuggle into a rock show a purple guitar piqata full of Hershey's Kisses.

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BY SETH MNOOKIN | There are moments on XTC's new "Apple Venus, Volume 1" --Andy Partridge's soaring invocations on the album opener, "River of Orchids,'' or the staccato rumblings and overflowing, pitch-perfect pop sensibility of "Easter Theatre," say -- when it is hard to believe that this is a band that has not released any new material in seven years, a band whose best-known work occurred more than a decade ago, a band that has been around for 25 (twenty-five!) years and has not performed live since its lead singer had a nervous breakdown in the early 1980s.

Hard to believe, because XTC sound, as always, so amazingly vibrant, so timeless (in a kind of aprhs-Beatles, neo-garde, postmodern kind of way), so unlike a band that has been more and less (usually more) dormant since Guns n' Roses were the coolest new kids on the block.

Musically, "Apple Venus" builds on and departs from previous XTC efforts: XTC's signature meticulous, dense arrangements, celestial harmonies and deliciously spun lyrics all get prominent play. The band leans more heavily on layered, baroque orchestration than it has in the past, with string quartets and carefully choreographed horn parts bobbing and weaving throughout the album. Indeed, the harsh angularity of previous XTC efforts is considerably tempered, replaced by a lush sophistication. The albums best tracks swell with a rising intensity accompanied by Partridge's inimitable, driving nasal twang. "Apple Venus" also features several jaunty acoustic numbers, exemplified by Partridge's schoolboy-sweet "I'd Like That" or Colin Moulding's "When I'm 64"-ish "Fruit Nut."

Perhaps the biggest evolution is lyrical: On "Apple Venus," Partridge isn't singing about the drugged-out glories of LSD, but about the trials and tribulations of what has been a difficult decade. On "Your Dictionary," a disarming acoustic number, Partridge, who has been busy with a divorce and a host of health problems, drawls "F-U-C-K ... is that how you spell friend in your dictionary?" Not that all the songs are pissed-off: The album's last track, the almost maddeningly sweet "The Last Balloon," is both a measured celebration of childhood and pained warning to children. "Climb aboard, you menfolk," Partridge sings, buoyed by ethereal trumpet lines, "leave all that to your former lives."

"Apple Venus," which promises to have a companion soon, is a logical next step for a band that has never done well with logical next steps. It's not likely to pick up many new converts for the band -- XTC has always been too idiosyncratic for widespread appeal -- but should sate the fanatics who have been pining for some new material since the Bush administration.

By Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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