London Highbury Garage
It’s not pop music, exactly, but what pop music would be like if it was any good. A great blast of nagging melodies wrapped in hardcore fury. Songs that last for not much more than two minutes and seem to be much shorter. A singer with a voice akin to fingernails scraping down a blackboard, only good. PUNK ROCK! – but punk rock without all the tragic look-mummy-I’m-a-webel, self-aggrandising posturing that the label usually entails. No fucking way! If much of the great music released in 1997 has tended toward the epic, the allusive, the frequently elusive, then Sleater-Kinney are the blazing exception that proves the rule. There is no messing about here: merely full-on, rapid-fire songs that embrace all that is radical, empowering and celebratory about this rock’n’roll malarkey. Yes, yes, yes and, indeed, yes.
In essence, Sleater-Kinney – from Olympia, Washington State, and with an exceptional third album, ‘Dig Me Out’, recently released on Matador – are the inverse Blues Explosion. There are three of them, all women: two (Carrie Brownstein and singer Corin Tucker) play guitars, scrupulously avoiding the remotest hint of fretwanky excess; the third (Janet Weiss) hits her drums with the kind of tribal belligerence Russell Simins would be proud of. What else? Well, they’re feminists – and not afraid to use that term in these days of faux girl power and rampant ‘ironic’ sexism – which has lead to them being endlessly, easily nailed as riot grrrls. And, true enough, their roots lie in that unfortunately imploded, discredited scene. But as they prove at this, their first British gig, they’re implicitly locked into a bigger, better tradition than that.
So therampant, splenetic likes of ‘Dig Me Out’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ find their closest correlative in the genius early ramalams of PJ Harvey: no blues residue, for sure, but the way Harvey’s original trio harnessed the taut abruptness of the Pixies to a harrowing, post-Patti Smith wail is brilliantly replicated here. ‘One More Hour’, meanwhile, has the kind of supercharged new wave angularity that Elastica capitalised on so successfully so many years ago. Oh, and ‘Little Babies’ disinters a forgotten girl group from the ’60s, teaches them a couple of fierce guitar chords and a defiant lyric about avoiding the maternity trap, and rapidly ascends to cool rock heaven, more or less.
Not much happens onstage, but then not much needs to. Sleater-Kinney play – brilliantly, passionately – for 45 minutes, and the thought occurs that few bands in the wake of Nirvana have married hardcore power to dizzying infectiousness with quite such success. Only that tedious stereotyping of them as riot grrrl throwbacks and – maybe, just maybe – the relentless stupidity of a music industry that can assimilate an average band like Kenickie (watching tonight), but reject a far more talented one like Bis (supporting tonight, and a born-again revelation) can stop Sleater-Kinney. Honestly.