Vinyl Review: Sleater-Kinney — Start Together

Reviews / November 24, 2014

Sleater-Kinney retrospective box-set worth every penny

Sub Pop Records

This review was contributed by Michael Melia.

When friends Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein formed Sleater-Kinney along with drummer Lora McFarlane (who would later be replaced by Janet Weiss) in 1994, it seemed safe to say that no one would of expected their career to turn out quite the way it did. Twenty years (including a ten-year hiatus) and seven albums later, everyone from Time Magazine, to Pitchfork, to this reviewer has past hailed them as the best rock band in the country, and yet the core members somehow ended up with more Emmy than Grammy nominations. A pretty crazy career for a bass-less riot grrl band from the Pacific Northwest. I’m pretty sure Bratmobile never won an Oscar or anything like that.

The 20-year mark is as good a time as any for a retrospective and current label Sub Pop has put together a gorgeous box-set, titled Start Together, containing all seven studio LPs from the band. Much has been written on these albums over the years, so here are just some (hopefully) brief thoughts on each. Bottom line: They all range from “really good” to “essential,” and if you get the box set, you’re getting them all regardless. Let’s take a look.


Sleater-Kinney (1995)

Some bands totally nail their sound on the debut and everything they do after is basically diminishing returns. Sleater-Kinney is absolutely not one of those bands. Released in 1995 for Queercore label Chainsaw Records, Sleater-Kinney finds the band at their most brash and unpolished. That’s not a bad thing though. If this was the only album they ever recorded, I would probably like it even more. The fact remains, though, they would take what they had here and improve on it in less than a year.

Make Sure To Spin:

“The Day I Went Away,” “How To Play Dead” and “Lora’s Song.”


Call the Doctor (1996)

One minute and forty seconds into the title track that opens Call the Doctor. That’s when you realize that this isn’t just a good band we’re dealing with, but a great one. Here is where the promise shown on the self-titled is delivered and then some. The unpolished energy is still there, but the songwriting has improved by leaps and bounds. By the time Tucker and Brownstein start screaming that “they want to be your Joey Ramone,” it’s pretty safe to say they’ve succeeded.

Make Sure To Spin:

“Call the Doctor,” “Anonymous” and “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.”


Dig Me Out (1997)

And about five minutes into this album is when you realize that this isn’t just a great band, but an important one. The thrilling title track of an opener makes me want to dance around like an idiot, while less than three minutes later, they’re quite possibly reducing me to tears with “One More Hour,” one of the most devastating breakup songs ever written. Dig Me Out is a sort of re-debut for the band, as it was their first for a larger label (Kill Rock Stars) and their first with long running drummer Janet Weiss. The production is slicker and the band is tighter. Previous drummer Lora McFarlane was a solid fit for the previous two efforts, but Weiss completely nails the more rock ‘n roll sound they are aiming for here. Good luck getting “Little Babies” out of your head anytime soon.

Make Sure To Spin:

“Dig Me Out,” “One More Hour” and “Little Babies.”


The Hot Rock (1999)

Things take a darker and more personal turn here, in an album that isn’t as immediately as satisfying as what preceded it. I say that, because this was never one of my favorites, but in revisiting it, it absolutely floored me. No, it’s not as in your face and catchy as Dig Me Out, but the songwriting might be even stronger. Listen to “The Size of Our Love” and try to tell me otherwise. Tucker and Brownstein’s growth as vocalists really shines here, as well, see the title track for more evidence there. The result is maybe not their best, but certainly their most underrated album.

Make Sure To Spin:

“Start Together,” “Get Up” and “The Size of Our Love.”


All Hands on the Bad One (2000)

Just one year after releasing their darkest and most challenging album to date, All Hands On The Bad One would be their brightest and most accessible. This one wouldn’t be a bad gateway for someone looking to get into S-K. The production is crisp, the hooks are strong and Tucker’s trademark wail (which can be a dealbreaker for some) is a bit more restrained. That being said, If I were to rank the albums, I’d put this somewhere near the bottom. It’s still great, but it lacks a little something that they would luckily regain shortly. Or maybe I’m just No Rock n’ Roll Fun.

Make Sure To Spin:

“All Hands on the Bad One,” “Youth Decay” and “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun.”


One Beat (2002)

This one is a doozy, and on most days, my favorite album they ever released. The shadow of 9/11 looms large here in their most politically focused album in quite some time. It’s also their most ambitious work with synths, strings and horns popping up all over the place. Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask even shows up to lend his vocals to “Prisstina.” There’s not a moment of filler here, even the deep cuts are better than most band’s singles. Absolutely essential.

Make Sure to Spin:

“One Beat,” “Step Aside” and “Sympathy.”


The Woods (2005)

And with their Sub Pop debut, comes another reinvention. If artists are supposed to mellow out as they get older, no one told Carrie, Corin and Janet. This thing is LOUD. I specifically remember buying this CD the day it was released, playing it in my car and honestly thinking I blew out my speakers. The riot grrrl politics are still here, but the sound is decidedly more Led Zeppelin. Luckily they pull it off and the results are stunning. If it wasn’t for recent developments, I would put this in a “greatest final album” conversation along with stuff like In Utero and The Argument.

Make Sure To Spin:

“The Fox,” “Modern Girl” and “Let’s Call It Love.”


Sound Quality

Records were played on a Pro-ject Debut Carbon with a Ortofon 2M Red cartridge.

All albums have been remastered from the original tapes by Greg Galbi at Sterling Sound and he clearly took his time. The only original vinyl pressing I was able to compare to was One Beat, but it sounds noticeably sharper here. The drums especially pop more and I’m now constantly reminded what an underrated drummer Janet Weiss is. The low end also sounds great, making you almost forget there’s no one playing bass. There are no surface noise issues here and everything sounds crisp and clear. I don’t think any fan would be disappointed with quality on any the pressings. These are albums I’ve listened to A LOT over the years and they’ve never sounded better.

Packaging

Each album is packaged in a single jacket (with the exception of The Woods, the only 2xLP of the bunch, which is a double gatefold) with a plastic inner sleeve and lyric sheet. One Beat also includes a fold out poster. Overall, the packaging of the individual albums is nothing to write home about, but the overall construction of the box is where Start Together really shines. Included is a gorgeous hardcover photo book showing the band’s history along with a 12”x12” art print on heavy stock paper. This is a massive and sturdy set that is worth every inch of shelf space it takes up. They were even considerate enough to leave some extra space in the box for a few more records.

Extras

Oh, right there was one other thing here. A NEW SONG. All copies of Start Together come bundled with a suprise 7” of a killer new song titled “Bury Our Friends.” A random 500 copies also came signed by the trio. In even more exciting news, this is just a taste of a new album that was recorded in secret and is due in January. Beyond that, the first 3,000 copies of the set (now sold out) are pressed on translucent and smoky colored vinyl that match the album art quite nicely. The additional pressing is on black. And because they thought of everything, a download code for MP3s or FLACs is also included and albums were available individually, as well.

Summary

Overall, this is one of the nicest, if not the nicest, box set I’ve ever come across. I would even like to see Sub Pop tackle something like this for some of their other bands. Naturally, a 10 pound, seven album collection will set you back a bit, but I can confidently say it’s worth every penny. Hopefully this is just the start of the next chapter for the band. Here’s to another 20 years!

You can still pick up the set over at Sub Pop. It’s now on black vinyl and still includes the new “Bury Our Friends” 7″.


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Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.






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