Sleater-Kinney at their most fascinating, unknowingly on the cusp of greatness but still fretting over every little thing.
Sleater-Kinney’s sophomore album, Call the Doctor, is filled with worries and concerns which are micro and macro, befitting both nascent punk rock royalty and a bunch of jaded twenty-somethings from Olympia, Washington. There are moments where the trio rail against the idea of losing control of themselves and having their identities twisted and perverted, common themes for bands that find mainstream success despite creating tunes that are largely at odds with commercial sensibilities. The women of Sleater-Kinney breached the national consciousness more with 1997’s career-changing Dig Me Out, but Call the Doctor remains a fascinating snapshot of not only the supremely talented trio in their formative stages, more polished than their self-titled debut but still incredibly accessible. Though they had achieved some success, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Lora MacFarlane were still unsure if their band was going to be around for the long haul. Tucker told Metroactive back when the album was released that much of its inspiration “came from working at a crap job,” but she refused to give any specifics; she was concerned she might need them as a reference down the road.
Throughout the album, the sense of fear and anger is pervasive, but it’s also intoxicating. The mood is crafted on the opening bars of the title track, which tackles the aforementioned fear of sonic sterilization: “They want to socialize you/ They want to purify you/ They want to dignify, analyze and terrorize you,” and further honed in different contexts. On “Good Things,” Tucker walks through the rubble of a ruined relationship: “Why do good things never wanna stay?/ Some things you lose, some things you give away.”
Barely a half-hour long, Sleater-Kinney doesn’t even give you a chance to get a word in edgewise; some albums are conversation, but Call the Doctor is more like a proclamation or a manifesto emanating from the cramped clubs and cluttered houses of the Pacific Northwest where the band cut its teeth. There’s no time for excessive studio polish, which creates the kinds of minor inconsistencies that make an album feel truly alive.
There’s intelligence to Sleater-Kinney’s work that is evident even as the band seems set on smothering it beneath searing guitars and fiery, barked vocals. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” is such a sharp takedown of rock star worship and the position that the trio were in as an all-female band in a male-dominated genre that it’s still a jaw-dropper all these years later. When Tucker yelps, “I wanna be your Joey Ramone/ Pictures of me on your door,” it’s a statement of intent, but one delivered with such a sneer that it can simultaneously be interpreted as serious and sarcastic.
We’re in a great era for punk today, specifically female-powered punk at that, but there’s an urgency here that is nearly impossible to find in 2016. Call the Doctor was recorded in four days, but listening to it straight through makes it feel like the entire album was a single take, an unexpected outburst and rejection of frustrations both internal and external. There’s so much immediacy to Tucker’s voice, Brownstein’s guitar and MacFarlane’s pounding percussion that listening to the album while commuting or working in a quiet coffee shop feels dissonant.
Sonically, Call the Doctor is lean and efficient, but never feels skimpy. There’s hardly a note that doesn’t come from either Tucker’s or Brownstein’s guitar but nothing on the record feels redundant. In fact, the consistency of the instrumentation highlights subtle differences that would otherwise be overlooked. The dreamy opening to “Heart Attack” isn’t exceptionally different than the guttural fuzz of “My Stuff,” but in this context they sound like two different genres.
Sleater-Kinney’s story ultimately had a happy ending; the band is still together (sans MacFarlane), and their 2015 album No Cities to Love was widely considered one of the best of the year. But if you told them back in 1996 that nearly two decades later they would be both critically adored and commercially successful there’s almost no chance they’d believe you. A band that believes they have a long future ahead doesn’t make an album like Call the Doctor, where every beat is critical, every second is precious and everything is enraging. The Woods is more high-concept, and Dig Me Out is their masterpiece, but this album is Sleater-Kinney at their most fascinating, unknowingly on the cusp of greatness but still fretting over every little thing.