Words and (More Importantly) Guitar

on corin tucker’s riot-grrrl rhythm guitar.


The “Palin Power” signs at the RNC sent me fleeing for some real riot grrrl power I might actually be able to believe in: a day of listening to Sleater-Kinney.

Most critics, in rightly celebrating this band as perhaps the most important rock group of the last fifteen years, have focused on Corin Tucker’s ululating howl, Janet Weiss’s Bonhamian Led-Zep beat, and Carrie Brownstein’s guitar riffs as the key components of Sleater-Kinney. Their songs are essential too, particularly their ability to create sonic spaces for investigating and feeling out all the complexities of the DIY aesthetic and ethic. But, most often, commentators have focused on Tucker’s voice, which her bandmates affectionally (and somewhat sardonically?) called “the Tool.” It was Tucker’s voice that was supposed to be the essence of Sleater-Kinney’s riot grrrl power.

Of course, it was the combination of these three musicians’ talents that made the now inactive Sleater-Kinney such a powerfully expressive band. Yet, listening again to the group, I think the secret weapon of the trio’s sound was actually Tucker’s rhythm guitar, which emerges from the mix like the ocean leaking out from a rusted metal pipe.

Full of grit and minerals, Tucker’s rhythm guitar substituted for the lack of a bass in Sleater-Kinney’s instrumentation. It filled up the background of the group’s sound with a kind of pulsating rumble, a salty undercurrent of murk on which the three voices of the group — Tucker’s voice, Weiss’s drums, and Brownstein’s riffs — could ride.

I hear something in Tucker’s guitar, the least noticed aspect of the group’s sound, that drove the band, that undergirded it, that lifted each musician’s more noticeable voices on its waves. As in the best rock music, Tucker’s rhythm guitar parts harnessed the explosive buzz of electricity, channeling the power grid into six strings and fingertips and a fist clenched around a plastic pick…making you want to dance and cry, march in the streets and slip under the bedcovers, declare I am and we must be, all in one downstroke.

Tucker’s rumbling guitar was the tide on which Sleater-Kinney rocked and rolled.

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