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Review: Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

Sleater-Kinney’s third album, Dig Me Out, was released on April 8, 1997 by Kill Rock Stars. Ann Powers’ review originally ran in the June 1997 issue of Spin. In honor of the album’s 20th anniversary, we’re republishing it here.

Nobody wants to be radical anymore. On the right, radicals blow up family-planning clinics; on the left, they’re shaggy ’60s relics and fat, hairy manhaters who destroyed feminism for ordinary women. Even as slang, “radical” seems about as fresh as Pauly Shore in a pair of Bongo shorts.

Until you hear Sleater-Kinney. “Dig me out!” hollers Corin Tucker on the title track of the band’s new album. “Dig me in! / Outta this mess, baby / Outta my head.” Tucker’s singing about how rock’s monstrous noise rips off her skin, leaving her unprotected and gloriously unbound. As guitarist Carrie Brownstein turbocharges a riff rescued from Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s “China Girl” and drummer Janet Weiss applies dominatrix discipline to her kick drum, Tucker alternately guides the music’s onslaught and gives in to it. She lets the songs’ electric momentum strip her down to her emotional core—a pure and antisocial humanity. From start to finish, Dig Me Out aims for this place of undiluted emotion, where girlishness yields to the rage and joy of women who feel no need to charm.

Nurtured in the pink petri dish of Olympia, Washington, where women’s lib never went out of fashion and punk meant the gentle triumph of nerdy kids, Sleater-Kinney seemed at first like a glorious anomaly: politically radical artists whose rhetoric fired them up instead of weighing them down. Tucker’s voice was one of those wonders of the world that turned listeners into pilgrims; Brownstein drove her own path with raggedy-ass, blade-sharp guitar, and the songs gleamed with quick eloquence. Yet for all the harsh allure of their 1995 debut and last year’s Call the Doctor, Sleater-Kinney’s music remained, for the most part, more no than yes, a reaction against sexism instead of an attempt to imagine life beyond it.

On Dig Me Out, a rockin’ little collection of love songs and catchy dance numbers, Sleater-Kinney take the next step. Like the most radical feminist art, the album cuts into the meat of women’s everyday experience, aiming for depths untouched by the buttons-and-brows (or nose-and-belly-button-ring) conventions that identify what’s “feminine.” This is not an easy task in the pop world, where most female artists trade in these conventions, occasionally sassing back, but ultimately staying within familiar boundaries. Many women assume they’re liberated because they can choose which fantasty to modify. But self-determination doesn’t mean shit when you didn’t create the self you’re determining. And one thing rock ‘n’ roll’s beat can offer is a momentary sandblast that frees raw consciousness. When Tucker sings “I’ll touch the sky and say what I want,” she knows that the music is what opens her mouth.

It takes chops to achieve such a visceral liberation, and Sleater-Kinney now own them fully. Weiss, who joined the group last year, is both relentless and highly musical, and Brownstein has grown dexterous on guitar; her twisted melodicism, which always got its energy from wiry riffs instead of crunchy chords, is a full partner to Tucker’s vocal aerobatics. Sleater-Kinney now deliver the punch their words describe. “Words and Guitar” leaps and skitters with the just-released repression of early Talking Heads; “Dance Song ’97” uses a Farfisa for a new wave, Day-Glo mood. Even “Little Babies,” a fairly standard feminist protest against the maternity trap, gets an added bite from a rock-reveling chorus (“All the little babies go one-two-three-four!”). Over chords that sounds like the Clash taking a walk on the wild side, Tucker and Brownstein giddily admit their own need to suck the mother’s milk of the backbeat.

It’s a blast to get charged up by Sleater-Kinney’s suffragette rock, but Tucker and Brownstein make their most surprisingly radical moves within love songs. Most address women, and this unqualified declaration of lesbian desire immediately lifts them past typical wedding-bell romance. Both fragmentary and painfully intimate, the songs avoid erotic platitudes, instead exploring sexual longing in plain language. Tucker and Brownstein are listening to themselves, and what they discover isn’t simple. In the magnificent “One More Hour,” the chorus counterposes Tucker’s irrational heartbreak (“I needed it,” she repeats, her pitch rising) against Brownstein’s rote rationalizations and deadpan clichés. The argument ebbs and fades; it could be lovers feuding, or one friend consoling the other, or the bereft Tucker split against herself. In this moment what emerges is the clarity of partial vision, the understanding that who you are is a process, not reducible to parts.

Dig Me Out captures the noise of a soul-filled body shaking itself awake, and that’s an experience that bridges any gender divide. In it, guys as well as girls will hear the rattle of their brains and the flash of their libidos. The catharsis Sleater-Kinney seek is more than just fun; it’s a battle in earnest for the human right to know and possess yourself. Feminism was supposed to be about that fight, too, but it’s still sputtering under the weight of its own complacency. Sleater-Kinney push us back into the fray. If they wanna be our Simone de Beauvior, Dig Me Out proves they’re up to it.