Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out Turns 20

Cue up the first track. Hit play. Or drop the needle, if you’re so inclined.

Immediately, there’s a guitar line that doesn’t sound quite like any other guitar you’ve heard.

Next come the drums – powerful, commanding. The guitar hook is imbued with a sense of urgency.

Then comes a voice – that voice – soaring above the driving din.

Not even 30 seconds in, a template is established, an opening salvo to an unlikely and perhaps unwitting manifesto:

We’re Sleater-Kinney, and we’re the greatest rock band on the planet.

Dig Me Out arrived in April 1997, amidst a tremendous outpouring of rock music the likes of which we may never again see. The roster of fantastic albums released that year stack against any comparable year you might dream up. Numerous essential artists from the preceding decades were still active, while many newer bands were just beginning to find their grooves. Maybe other albums released that year were better. And over time, Sleater-Kinney would top their own efforts. But as a vital document of the time, and as groundwork for the future, Dig Me Out stands out above all others.

There was already a major buzz around Sleater-Kinney by 1997. A year earlier, they’d released Call The Doctor, the album that first announced them to a national audience – just not yet a very large one. It was released by Chainsaw Records, a small Olympia-based label closely associated with the Riot Grrrl scene of the early-mid ’90s. While Call The Doctor is itself a classic that can rightly be pointed to for its own importance, Chainsaw’s limited reach and a not-yet-realized lineup change limit its singular importance. Still, it was more than enough to attract attention from other labels – including some much larger ones. But Sleater-Kinney did things their own way. They signed with Kill Rock Stars, a better-known but still relatively small Olympia-based label.

Had they made a similar decision five years earlier, Sleater-Kinney might have had a harder time reaching outside the overlapping Riot Grrrl and Pacific Northwest scenes. By 1997, though, scenes were no longer so isolated. A multitude of factors, including a more open political climate, a new generation inspired by the original “alternative” bands who had broken earlier in the decade, and the explosion of access points for new music – most notably the emergence of the Internet – combined to create one of the most vibrant periods rock music would ever experience. Instead of hamstringing them, Sleater-Kinney’s decision to sign with Kill Rock Stars freed them up to define themselves.

Sleater-Kinney were ideally positioned to break down barriers in 1997. More importantly, they were also ideally equipped. Call The Doctor had announced to the world a band that had incredible potential, led by a pair of songwriters/guitarists/vocalists in Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. With Dig Me Out, the vital third piece came on board in the form of Janet Weiss, an already accomplished drummer who, by Brownstein’s admission, was a far better technical musician than her new bandmates. If Call The Doctor was the album where Sleater-Kinney’s musical architecture first became evident, then Dig Me Out is the album where they paired the engineering with the architecture. All that would be needed was the experience of more years playing together, refining their chops and teamwork. By 1997, Sleater-Kinney already had the inherent talent and ambition to design and build rock masterpieces, and Dig Me Out offered its fair share of examples.

Start with the lead and title track. Brownstein’s creativity and urgency on the guitar, Weiss’s power and control behind the kit, and Tucker’s singular voice are all in evidence – each component able to lead a band on its own. Combined, though, something sonically unstoppable is occurring. What makes it all the more remarkable is the unusual construction of the elements. For one, there’s no bass. Instead, Tucker’s guitar is down-tuned a step and a half, and Weiss simply takes up more sonic space than the average drummer. Brownstein and Tucker are freed up to explore synergistic guitars without always having to lay down a rhythm track. Somehow, Brownstein manages a tone that is bright without being shrill, and Tucker manages a tone that is slightly heavy without coming out flat. All of the elements feel like they could fly out of control, but they never do.

The most outstanding track on Dig Me Out is “Turn It On”, and like “Dig Me Out”, it reflects how the band is even greater than the sum of its parts. Corin Tucker is arguably the greatest rock vocalist of our time, and “Turn It On” is a signature piece for her. Sleater-Kinney, though, is a dual-vocalist, dual-frontwoman band – a decision that may seem curious, because Brownstein is not the caliber of vocalist that Tucker is. But “Turn It On” reveals the essential nature of Brownstein’s vocals. As “Turn It On” progresses through its verses, only Tucker is heard, a force of nature, alternately pleading and demanding. The bridge hits, and Brownstein comes in, softer, conveying senses of longing and vulnerability. Then the chorus explodes, with Tucker somehow further ratcheted up. Her demands are stronger – but now they are also informed by Brownstein’s vulnerability. It’s not a call and response; the two voices combine to flesh out a single narrator, one of incredible emotional depth and breadth. As great a vocalist as Tucker is, Brownstein makes her better. Similarly, as innovative a guitarist as Brownstein is, Tucker makes her better. And as outstanding a songwriting duo as Tucker and Brownstein are, Weiss makes them better.

One danger of the formula that Sleater-Kinney had concocted would have been leaning too heavily on certain aspects of it. Instead, Dig Me Out is full of examples of skirting this danger. “Heart Factory” reverses the vocals, putting Tucker in a secondary role, and allowing the natural change of Brownstein’s lead vocals to break up the album just as she’d done with a single song. “It’s Enough” is essentially a punk song. “Dance Song ’97” flirts with New Wave. And they can even offer what’s essentially torch ballad with “Buy Her Candy”. The closer, “Jenny”, is somewhere between classic rock and alt-rock, but still uniquely Sleater-Kinney. Sometimes, when a band offers a unique sound, they will get criticized for everything sounding the same. Any such criticism lobbed at Sleater-Kinney would be remarkably lazy. While “Dig Me Out” establishes a template for the way the band interlocks, the totality of the album reveals that experimentation is an integral part of the band’s DNA.

The recognition that Weiss had only been in the band for a short time makes the chemistry inherent in Dig Me Out all the more stunning. In retrospect, it’s also easy to see that Sleater-Kinney was still just getting started. In 2001, legendary critic Greil Marcus declared Sleater-Kinney to be “America’s Best Rock Band”. In turn, they produced perhaps their two strongest albums, 2002’s One Beat and 2005’s The Woods. At the time of their initial breakup in 2006, there were no other real contenders to the throne. And with their reunion in 2016, Sleater-Kinney immediately reassumed the mantle of greatest rock band – not just in America, but anywhere.

Don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Greil Marcus’s word for it either. If somehow, over the last 20 years, you’ve missed out, rectify the situation immediately. Get your hands on a copy of Dig Me Out. Tell your co-workers, your family, your cat, whomever else may be in the room, that you need about 35 minutes to yourself. Put down the phone. Turn up the volume.

Cue up the first track. Hit play, drop the needle… whatever. Just:

Turn it on.

Phil Huckelberry
Phil Huckelberry