20 Years Ago: Sleater-Kinney Spill Their Secrets on ‘Dig Me Out’
Some albums rock because it's the only way the artists can express their full range of trauma (emotional, spiritual), and because it's the only way said artists know how to perform. These are the reasons why Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out rocks.
Guitarists/vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein formed Sleater-Kinney in 1994 in Olympia, Wash., a town that had spawned its share of tight, angry punk bands in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Tucker and Brownstein played in, respectively, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, and bonded over their shared love of righteous noise. The pair sparked a friendship, then a brief romantic relationship, then a band of their own — one that rehearsed in a space on Sleater Kinney Road in nearby Lacey.
Sleater-Kinney, as the duo dubbed themselves, made two albums of insistent, gloriously loud rock and roll, including 1996’s much-lauded Call the Doctor. After playing with no fewer than three drummers across the records and ensuing tours, the band teamed up with Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, a powerhouse behind the kit, who earned Tucker and Brownstein’s respect almost immediately.
"She came over to my crummy little basement," Tucker told Spin, "and she had learned all the songs from Call the Doctor. She just blew us away."
In another interview, with Addicted to Noise, Tucker noted that Weiss had "completed our band. She's become the bottom end and the solidness that we've really wanted for our songwriting."
In December 1996, after two months of writing, the band entered a Seattle studio to record its third LP, Dig Me Out. It was not the most comfortable of seasons.
"We quit our jobs, left our houses and drove through an insane snowstorm to cram into a tiny room in Seattle and spill all our secrets," Tucker recalled on Facebook in March 2017.
"We were desperate to prove ourselves and to harness the palpable momentum and chemistry of playing music together," Weiss added. "Recording memories of snow, wet socks and space heaters, just the band and John [Goodmanson, the album’s producer] in the small triangle studio ripping through heavyweight takes."
Those "heavyweight" sounds start on the first, and titular, track, and immediately the listener is pulled into the drama of a relationship turned toxic. "Do you get nervous watching me bleed?" Tucker sings, as she and Brownstein play the dissonant chords that ground the song. Tucker’s keening upper register in the choruses is dramatic and jarring at once, bringing one’s full attention to the pain at the heart of the lyrics.
Pain is all one notices in "One More Hour," a wrenching breakup song that takes Tucker from the room she must leave to the fictitious final scene she allows herself to imagine ("Take off the dress / Take off the face / I’ll hold you close / Before I leave." This makes the back-and-forth during the chorus that much more difficult to bear, with Tucker pleading "I needed this" and Brownstein calmly responding with lines like "I know it’s so hard for you to let it go."
Listen to "One More Hour"
Brownstein has since admitted (in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl) that much of the material on Dig Me Out emanates from her breakup with Tucker several years prior to the album’s recording. "One More Hour" is particularly resonant, as she told Rolling Stone.
"That song was about me and Corin breaking up," she noted. "And that time for me is not particularly sad, but her take on that is really devastating."
For all the dour vibes that come off the lyrics of certain songs, the music Sleater-Kinney employed to send their words out into the world had moments of pure fun, if not joy. The organ in "Dance Song ’97," for example, adds another, playful layer to the already deep sounds coming from the band’s dual-guitar approach. On "Little Babies," the band marries lyrics decrying the stereotypes of motherhood with a "dum dum dee dee" chorus straight out of a stack of bubblegum 45s to marvelous effect. And in the glorious "Words and Guitar," Tucker lays out her entire raison d'être as a musician — "Take, take the noise in my head / C’mon and turn it up" — by leading the band in rocking out with abandon.
Still, it’s the bleaker moments of Dig Me Out that garnered the most attention when it was released, and which still register today, like "The Drama You’ve Been Craving," with its breakneck pace, and the call and response of Tucker setting the scene and Brownstein providing the weary inner monologue. The chugging tandem guitar line that precedes the chorus amps up the tension that doesn’t break until after the second chorus, when Tucker shouts, "Kick it out, kick it in!"
The album still hits hard, even for those who made it.
"Any time I revisit Dig Me Out," said Brownstein recently, "I am struck by its velocity, how I feel almost trapped inside it. I think it's because the album sounds like it takes place in the middle of a much longer ache and scrawl, that there's a life before it and a life after it, that we captured not the launch or the landing but the trajectory itself. The trajectory of the band, of love, of escape, of rage.
"Maybe we were trying to provide a soundtrack," she continued, "both for ourselves and for anyone else who had little desire to go back to the places that haunted them; we'd stay aloft until we destroyed what held us back, or transformed what lay ahead."
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