Pining for the Old Northwest: Sleater-Kinney, Built to Spill

A trustworthy rule of thumb: Critics should never write critically about other critics. Not only does this make a certain career sense, but one falls into the Pauline Kael-esque trap of assigning straw-man motivations to one’s nemeses in order to score points with larger issues that may or may not apply to the work being considered. In short, one tends to look like an idiot … but not always. So, with that in mind, I will make an exception here and meditate on the critical popularity of Sleater-Kinney and Built to Spill, two rock-and-roll bands from the Pacific Northwest. Believe me, our very society is at stake.

Both have new “product” out–Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars) and Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Brothers)–that has been praised with language usually reserved for beloved but dying monarchies. It’s been about a half-decade since the Kids of America traded in their guitars for a blank prescription pad, and this has constituted a crisis for a critical class, schooled in minutiae, that posits that there are unbroachable sonic and ideological differences between the Who and R.E.M. or, more to the point, between the Volcano Suns and Dumptruck. Every couple of years, the pop scribes give in to a neurotic need to elevate a band or two as rock’s (read: the white man’s) next (read: last) great hope. Why? To coax back the sugar rush of youth, as if their job were less to figure out what’s going on in front of their faces than to construct a Cleveland of the heart.

One can’t help but feel sympathy for these writers. (I, for one, pity myself.) It takes a dedicated pedantry to fill your head with the endless crap necessary to possess a tenuous grip on a morphing popular culture you suspect is slipping away from you. Take Sleater-Kinney and Built to Spill, for example. Members of both bands have a lengthy indie-rock pedigree trailing back into the Green River era. They come from a geographical area cherished for its now-dead promises of innocent, righteous hedonism. (Call it a Seattle of the mind.) But they, out of an endless selection of likable, kind of edgy, kind of sad peers, have been anointed.

Is the music of Sleater-Kinney and Built to Spill worth our time? It depends on what your definition of “is” is. For the Anointed, “is” represents “was,” a period of 15 or so years ago. Today’s critics, who came of age during the thrift store-clothed “Amer-Indie” onslaught of the 80′s, haven’t quite come to grips with the fact that the success of that movement is represented by its annihilation. Speaking for myself, when I listen to Rykodisc’s recent Meat Puppets reissues–a band I was never particularly fond of–I find myself tearing up, pining for a kinder, gentler old ignorance. But I was not a better man then than I am now, and much of my and others’ critical embrace of a forced slack-jawedness smacked of the flawed pedagogy of album-oriented radio. Most of us (white, middle-class) mid-80′s types were only vaguely aware of work by the likes of, say, George Clinton, Ornette Coleman and Liquid Liquid, which in some cases had been created only a half-decade before. Or less. Instead, it is this generation’s little bit o’ hell to find positive and Pavlovian mimetic associations in the work of Journey, Pat Benatar and Loverboy, or a weaker echo in their stepchildren Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. SST has long gone the way of that old, reliable horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm , and Sony will be around long after we’re dead. Who you gonna call, Ghostbusters?

Ridiculous, you say. We have paged through our latest issue of Request , and have broken bread in our college cafeterias. The matters of Rock still matter. Look at the Offspring. Better than Ezra. Australia’s sun-dappled Silverchair! To which I answer: Behold Andy Williams! Glance upon the Adonis that was John Davidson in his prime! Now decipher the Roman numerals on the back of their album covers. These artists reached their commercial peak in the late 60′s . They ate well during the psychedelic era. History is gracious before the fall. Bow before Ozymandias!

So bands such as Sleater-Kinney or Built to Spill are a necessary amniotic fluid, protecting us from the crassness of our nostalgic longings for pure stink. By definition they can’t push the envelope into new territory lest we merely enjoy them for their own sake, and then turn to the Devil (or at least Ozzy). Which is to say, enjoying Sleater-Kinney and Built to Spill is an admission of a kind of failing of human nature: that we cannot escape ourselves. As Montaigne wrote, concerning suicide (not the band), “There is greater constancy in wearing out our chains than in breaking them.”

Then again, Guy Fawkes told us that “a desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy.” That said, The Hot Rock has much in it to recommend, Keep It Like a Secret , less. The double vocals on some of the strongly No-Wave-influenced Hot Rock is a neat trick, though I wish that it represented more of a conflicted consciousness. It is certainly superior to Doug Martsch’s guitar solos on Keep It Like a Secret , a singular weapon of aggressive boredom. Woody Guthrie’s wonderful and inaccurate statement “This machine kills fascists,” painted on his acoustic six-string, has been updated through Mr. Martsch’s insistent fingertips to conclude “… and then some.” You don’t merely oppose his guitar solos to make a statement against Rock-ism. In fact, the guitar may very well have a future in the traditional sense. Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, for one, continues to evoke unencumbered, off-centered joy whenever he sets himself up for a little wank. But Built to Spill could improve its work immensely by cutting each ditty of sad-eyed optimism in half. If the fade-out is good enough for Neil Young, it’s good enough for Doug Martsch.

The faux-naïveté of Sleater-Kinney’s professionalism contains considerably more appeal. Janet Weiss, also of Quasi, is a fine rock drummer, and producer Roger Mountenot gives her some great snare sounds. Many of the guitar riffs, courtesy of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, are intertwining and insistent, with dulled-down strings. The riffs remind me of other obscure records, especially on “Don’t Talk Like,” though I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t quite place them. This gives some of the record an accidental Pavement-like feel of inspired appropriation and theft.

Mr. Martsch has also been tagged as something of a naïf for the way his music evokes his Idaho background. There is, as has been noted, a “sprawl” to it, of a prosaic sort. Oh, I’m too harsh. It’s fine for what it is. However, this stuff sort of reminds me of Socialist Realism, with the modern-day concession of emotion replacing politics: a plod through our day-to-day minor tribulations. The ecstasy is someone else’s and, as in Raymond Carver’s work, the suffering was noted long ago, and in wiser terms.

Sleater-Kinney seems to acknowledge this, in certain ways. Many of their lyrics obsess on perceived substitution and are directed at subjects whose minds the protagonists may well not know. “I’m not the one you wanted/ not the thing you keep,” sings Carrie Brownstein on the title track. No, what I wanted passed by long ago. Should I just take what’s here?