In reality, Sleater-Kinney's music can be downright off-putting. On past recordings, the group's signature sound -- Corin Tucker's and Carrie Brownstein's dueling guitars and caterwauling vocals, backed up by the expert drumming of Janet Weiss -- often veered into homogenous territory, as if the Portland-based band was evolving from its riot grrl roots with no clear idea where to go next. To be called the greatest rock band around, the trio would have to do something different; thankfully, on its sixth record, One Beat, it has.
Previously, Sleater-Kinney's stridency wore thin over a full album. Now, however, the members' talents combine more organically, creating an emotional intensity that's accessible and unalienating -- particularly when you listen to the lyrics.
Several tunes on One Beat pull off the neat trick of responding to Sept. 11 and its aftermath without sounding sappy, trite, or foolishly angry. On the strong dissent anthem "Combat Rock," Brownstein spits out lyrics like "Where is the questioning, where is the protest song?/ Since when is skepticism un-American?" and "Show you love your country/ Go out and spend some cash."
On this and other tracks (including the poppier "Oh!"), Brownstein assumes a larger vocal role than on past efforts. While brilliant interplay between the two singers has always been one of Sleater-Kinney's selling points, Tucker's powerful yet shrill wail can grow irritating. On One Beat Tucker still gets her turn, but her shouts are tempered by the other members' backing vocals. On "Step Aside" Tucker roars over a horn section and a surprisingly danceable beat, as charming "woo-hoo"s tone down her acidic vocal melody.
For One Beat, Sleater-Kinney has combined the pop sensibilities of 2000's All Hands on the Bad One with the political-mindedness of the group's earlier work. The result is an album that's not only S-K's strongest yet, but also the record most likely to turn mere rock fans into Sleater-Kinney fans, as supporters suggested was possible all along.