Dig Me Out. Sleater-Kinney.
1997, Kill Rock Stars. Producer: John Goodmanson
IN A NUTSHELL – Peppy punk pop from a band with no bass, two guitars, a cool drummer and a voice that gets better each time you listen. They seem to have a formula for good songs, and can pull them off without sounding formulaic. Emotion and urgency and lots of fun. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I was pissed off more often – it always sounds best when I’m in a lousy mood!
“Just gotta get used to it/
You irritate me, my friend.”
-The Who, “Another Tricky Day”
Is there a more existential crisis-inducing phrase than “You’ll get used to it”?
Whatever “it” may be, the phrase implies that this thing you now find annoying or terrifying or disgusting or risky or unconscionable will – with just a bit of time and repetition – become, at worst, tolerable, and maybe even enjoyable. When someone you trust tells you “You’ll get used to it,” the implication is that you will be changing, significantly.
This is frightening for a few reasons.
The first is that most people – well, people who are free from mental illness – spend most of their time feeling pretty satisfied with who they are at this moment. They may have some characteristics they’d like to improve – drop a few pounds, volunteer more, finish that degree – but on the whole, they feel like they know themselves pretty well and feel good about who they are. Informed that a change is coming, many people will naturally wonder if they’ll still like themselves after the change.
For the sake of this ridiculous blog, let’s use the following ridiculous example: From now on, all peanut butter will have to be CHUNKY instead of SMOOTH. It’s just how it’s going to be. People decided there could only be one type, and after much debate the decision was CHUNKY. In an imaginary place, where people will have cared enough about peanut butter textures to participate in public debates on the matter, many folks will have a self-identity strongly tied to their peanut butter choice. There will be folks who’ve always thought of themselves as the type of person who only likes smooth peanut butter, and more than this, they’ll have enjoyed viewing themselves as a “smooth” type of person. They’ve likely considered Chunky-lovers to be, well, a little arrogant, with their whole “oh, MY peanut butter has real hunks of peanut blended right in” demeanor and their “you actually have to CHEW to eat my peanut butter” condescension.
So telling a smoothie “You’ll get used to Chunky” will elicit more than just feelings of disappointment over having to either chew bits of peanuts or comb through their peanut butter sandwiches with a lice pick before eating. It will elicit feelings of despair that “I’m losing my identity, and one day I’ll become a CHUNKY-LOVING ASSHOLE!!!”
Getting used to Chunky is about so much more than simply mouthfeel.
I understand the fear of becoming what we despise. Among the types of people who used to annoy me were fans of the time-wasting game Sudoku, who would constantly tell me how much fun the game is. “Ugh,” I’d say. “I don’t really like math games.” Invariably, the reply would be, “But it’s not really math!” I would smile and repeat, inside my brain, “It’s not really math! It’s not really math!” in a satisfying elementary-school-playground-mocking voice.
Eventually, curiosity (and great respect for a number of the game’s enthusiasts) drove me to an iPhone app that included a convenient version of the game. I played a game or two to kill some time, and before you could say “addictive personality type” I became hooked. It wasn’t long until I heard myself repeating to an acquaintance those dreaded words “… but it’s not really math.” I cringed a bit, in a familiar manner – the same as I’d cringed when I heard myself say “… but The Next Generation isn’t really Sci-Fi,” or “You know, back when I was your age …” I had become a member of a club I’d resisted – or more than resisted, a club whose existence I’d actively agitated against!
When you “get used to something,” you risk joining such a club.
Another reason “You’ll get used to it” is frightening is because the implication is that the speaker may know you better than you know yourself. In addition to feeling satisfied with ourselves, we also all like to believe that we are complex individuals, with intricate emotions and beliefs, inscrutable to the outside world. “True,” we think, “you may have known several other Smoothies who’ve grown accustomed to – and maybe even eventually preferred – chunky peanut butter. But you don’t understand the depth and elaborate nature of my own devotion to Smooth.” We don’t want to believe that our attachment to Smooth is as tenuous as every other peanut butter eater who’s ever slathered some Wonder Bread. “I am different!” we confidently declare.
It’s shocking to find out that our human nature can be so predictable, so identical to those around us. I remember when my kids were small – 2004 or 2005 – taking them to some kind of chain restaurant – Applebee’s? Uno’s? Whatever … it was some kind of restaurant whose name would cause most of my fellow New Yorker-reading parents to gag on their homemade hand-rubbed organic cage-free quinoa-infused root vegetables (a reaction that is the most enjoyable part of eating at such a place). But it was cheap and the kids could get actual vegetables with a meal, so it worked great for us when nobody wanted to cook. As my family sat down, I heard Roxy Music’s “More Than This” playing.
“Wow,” I thought. “This is a rather obscure, somewhat hip song for such a place to be playing.” As we ordered, I noticed that now The Smithereens were playing, and again I thought, “All right, Big Chain Restaurant! This location sure does play some great songs!”
A parade of similarly obscure but cool 80s and early 90s songs followed, bands from Talk Talk to Material Issue, and I ate my food amid happy memories of MTV’s 120 Minutes, drinking Natty Bohs, and passing out in neighbors’ doorways. I imagined the cool restaurant manager who must have painstakingly scoured his record collection to put together such a nice selection of songs, and I wondered if I should ask the waitress to talk to him [her?] so we could compare musical notes. As I sat there bobbing along to the music, reassessing my disgust with conglomerate-owned restaurant chains, reassessing my disgust at myself for patronizing them, and enjoying the fact that the place included tater tots on the menu (and who else but me would order tater tots, right!?!), I looked around and noticed that a fair 70% of the patrons were – like us – white families consisting of parents in their mid-30s with children under 6. A significant proportion of the parents bobbed their heads along to JoBoxers as they admired their kids’ placemat artwork. And ate tater tots.
“Am I really this predictable?” I wondered. ” Can I really be such a true distillation of my demographic???”
As “Don’t Let’s Start” popped up next on the now-obviously-computer-generated playlist, I dejectedly signed my receipt and shuffled out to the mini-van.
This is what “you’ll get used to it” implies – that you can be known. That you already ARE known … That some big corporate boob can hire flunkies with spreadsheets to write a couple algorithms and come up with a music playlist that will help to herd you and the rest of the flock through a little doorway to a plateful of warm, greasy slop. (And delicious tater-tots, let’s not forget.) Repeatedly.
The term itself – “used to” – is an odd one to see written. When spoken, the words flow together. “Eustu,” we say. “I’m eustu it.” As spoken, the meaning of the individual words are lost, and we’re left with a phrase that we hear and recognize as “accustomed to.”
But when you see the words written, you’re forced to reckon with what the term really entails. “Used,” it says. To use. To be used. I, a human, have been used. I have been used, and now that use has left me different. Like a broken tool, I have become the product of use. Through use I have been inured. A callous has been worn onto my soul, a scar on my very being. My former self no longer exists. I have been used.
As in the sentence, “I have gotten used to Eric’s overwritten paragraphs.”
To get used to something doesn’t usually connote a positive development.
Perhaps most offensive of all, “You’ll get used to it” also implies that your tastes and opinions are insignificant. “But wait,” you say. (Whine?) “I REALLY LIKE smooth peanut butter! I don’t WANT TO get used to Chunky!!” Maybe your dad gave you a jar of Skippy Original on his death bed, and so the issue hits close to home with you. Maybe you’ll indignantly hold onto the affront, start to agitate, politically, for Smoothie rights, or work with the Smoothie Underground. You could come to personify the struggle for Smoothie inclusiveness. And good for you, if your feelings on a matter are so strong. But it could also be true that some of your tastes and opinions are, when viewed objectively, indeed insignificant and could use a little bit of reconsideration.
Because after you’ve gotten used to something, you may actually find it enjoyable, and you may realize you didn’t have to give anything up when you came to appreciate something new. Beets, Little League baseball, dance recitals, Microsoft Excel, driving standard transmission, What Not to Wear, Senior Residential Communities, Unitarian Universalism, Ikea … these are all aspects of my life that twenty years ago I would have told you I’d never get used to, but that have come to be, if not enjoyable, then certainly more than just tolerable. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be open and resist the urge to immediately say “No.” If you’re unsure of yourself, that can be a scary idea – like a teenage boy, considering if he could accept the fact that a friend is gay, wondering, “But what if he asked me out on a date, and I accidentally said yes, and he accidentally kissed me, and I accidentally liked it?!?”
And sometimes you have to give some things more than just one chance. People continue to change, and those changes can allow you to appreciate more of life, leave you exposed to richer experiences and a wider array of possibilities. As you get used to more things, you have more opportunities to experience more things. It’s what you might call “maturation.” And some of the things you get used to will become – with experience – important favorites. And if you’re ever inclined to make a list of favorite things, you may wish to include it on the list.
Such is the case with album #88, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out.
In the late 90s I approached 30 … and then rushed right by it, into middle age, like spotting a gas station on the highway, down an exit you just passed. Up through about 1995 I kept a close eye on what was happening musically. I saw lots of great shows by a lot of cool bands of the era – acts like The Lemonheads, Hole, Matthew Sweet, The Breeders, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr. … I bought a lot of music, too, and attempted to find new acts to share with and impress my friends – acts like Guided By Voices, The Sea and Cake, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion …
But sometime in 1996 I noticed that I hadn’t seen a show in a long time, and I hadn’t bought a new CD since Neil Young and Pearl Jam put out Mirror Ball.
I was very active in theater and comedy at this time, and somehow all that activity pushed aside my music appreciation. As my 30th birthday approached, I saw my musical drawdown as convincing evidence that I was becoming an Old Fuddy-duddy, and I vowed to kick my music awareness into a higher gear to forestall the inevitable. I bought more music magazines, and started frequenting a record store where all the workers were utterly pompous assholes, and most of the music they sold was entirely unlistenable, but which sent out a cool new thing called an “e-newsletter” listing new albums via this cool new thing called “email.”
I vowed to get back on musical track.
By the end of 1997, I realized I had failed. The only new records I bought that year were Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams (hardly a new artist), When I Was Born for the 7th Time, by Cornershop (a cool record, but hardly evidence of a deep dive into the now sounds of ’97), and Dig Me Out (which I hardly even liked.) But even though I didn’t buy a lot of new records that year, I liked what I got … eventually.
What I found most memorable about Dig Me Out on first listen, and what you will too, is that the lead singer tends to shriek and warble. At the same time. Don’t believe me? Try the opening track, particularly about 30 seconds in:
At first listen, it was hard for me to appreciate the song because I kept being distracted by that shriek. The track has a great opening riff that is strident and memorable, like some kind of call to arms. The drums begin a tom-tom pounding and within a few bars the song is barreling ahead with pace and urgency. Corin Tucker’s vocals mimic the guitar pattern, and are intense and powerful. When she begins the “Dig me out! Dig me in!” the third time, the vocals have a shrill nature that might be hard for some listeners to hang with. It was hard for me to hang with, I know that!
But the drumming on the track is excellent, and the song’s two melodies – the first one aggressive, the second one sweet – work together in a satisfying way. This is a great song with great guitar and drum performances.
There was something about the music on the album that pulled me in, but I was also repelled by Tucker’s cacophonous singing style. I played it a few times, but it wasn’t in my main rotation of music. Over time, I began to see the album show up on “best-of” lists, and friends whose tastes mirrored mine also spoke highly of it. When I mentioned my difficulty with Tucker’s voice, most said … “You’ll get used to it.”
Now, I like some annoying singers that others find really objectionable, and I dislike some annoying singers that others find unassailable, but I can’t really tell you why certain annoying singers are okay and others aren’t. I guess that it mostly has to do with the context in which the voice is presented. As I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m a big guitar/drums/melody guy, and I love songs with energy. Sleater-Kinney fits the bill there, and the more I listened to the band, the more I did – indeed – get used to Tucker’s voice. It fits with the music, and certainly brings out the emotions of the songs. The entire album sounds best when I’m pissed off and I have it cranked loud. I’m not even sure what all of the songs are about, but when I’m in the right/wrong frame of mind, and I hear her start to wail, I want to go out and KICK SOME ASS! (A statement which – if you know me – may have just caused you to fall over with laughter.)
Slowly the album worked its way back into my music rotation, and when I was re-listening to all my CDs to create this list, I was struck by just how great I think this record is, and how much I really love listening to it!
The one song on the album I always loved is probably the catchiest song on the album, “Little Babies.”
The lyrics are either about the joys of motherhood or the oppression of women rockers by their male counterparts, depending on who’s listening. And the counter-melodic backing vocal provides a cool undertone to the lines – however you wish to interpret them. (I tend to think the latter interpretation was intended …) I like how the band kicks right into the song with no buildup, giving it an urgent sound. And the drums in the verse are coolly sparse, but interesting, using the toms to accent the vocals. It’s a fun, danceable song – even though the band doesn’t have a certain key necessity for playing dance music …
Sleater-Kinney is a three-piece band – two guitars and a drummer. As a bass player myself, this lack of what I think of as “complete” instrumentation saddens me. However, the arrangement suits the band’s songs. They are aggressive, fiery songs and I don’t find myself missing the bass in them.
As if to show me that they can, indeed, play dance songs, they named one of their songs “Dance Song ’97.”
This is probably my second favorite song on the record. The drums propel the song, and the piece again features the characteristic Sleater-Kinney motif of catchy guitar riff and cool melody. This one also features some moody keyboard thrown into the chorus, as well. It’s a very poppy, danceable song, even without a bass. The lyrics are straight-ahead “you’re the one that I want” lyrics, the type that are right at home in a “Dance Song.”
A song that greatly demonstrates the interplay between the three instruments is the song “One More Hour;”
To set the tone, there’s a bouncing guitar riff, a line that might be played on the bass in a different band, and a cool, hiccupping snare beat to support it. The second guitar enters with a discordant flourish, and Tucker sings a song about the end of a relationship.
The song features another thing I like about the band’s songs, which is a counter melody from the backing singer, Carrie Brownstein. In many songs, while Tucker is ferociously belting her lines, Brownstein provides a balance – in both lyrics and melody. When this album came out, it was still a big deal, culturally, that Tucker and Brownstein had previously been in a romantic relationship together – they were both women, after all (!!) – and that this song was apparently written about the breakup. But many bands – Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, The White Stripes – have former couples in them, and nearly 20 years later, the “Oh my goodness, they’re lesbians!” angle has been filed down significantly. The stresses endured by former couples rocking together have generated some cool songs over the years and this is another one.
(I didn’t find a lot of great music videos or live clips of songs from this record, but here’s one that I like of “One More Hour,” with the band playing in a record store.)
Sleater-Kinney has a “riot grrrl” reputation – a label that connotes to many songs decrying the patriarchal hegemony, and destroying the gender-dualistic paradigm. But as with most labels, this one doesn’t exactly fit. Most of Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics are indirect and open to interpretation. And many feature that most time-tested theme since the 1950s – a simple desire to ROCK!
For example, the driving “Words and Guitar.”
This is a song that captures everything I’ve been writing about the band – the voice – particularly strident and keening here – the dueling guitar lines playing off each other, and Weiss’s interesting drumming. It also has the countermelody backing vocals from Brownstein, which I love.
Another song from the tried and true “let’s rock and roll!” genre is “It’s Enough,” which is an ode to the magical pull of a great rock record.
It’s easy to hear why some macho dudes might feel threatened by the band and toss them into the Riot-Grrrl pot. “That chick’s screaming about feminism and shit like that. They’re always angry. I don’t like them.” But as with most bullshit concerns some men have with feminism, those concerns are not based in fact, but more likely a projection of more personal fears.
While the style of the music does have an angry edge (and I must say again that I enjoy this album most when I’m pissed off) most of the lyrics on the album don’t particularly have much venom in them. The lyrics aren’t patriarchy-smashing, penis-chopping, Lifetime TV Movie-inspired anti-man rants. They’re really oblique and open to interpretation. Even songs whose titles sound like they might be polemics – like “Things You Say” and “Not What You Want” and “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” have lyrics that are indirect and unexpected.
Also, the stereotypical Riot-Grrrl band would have, according to the way some tiny-dicked men describe it, no sense of humor. However, guitarist Carrie Brownstein is now most-recognizable as a comedienne starring in, and writing, with Fred Armisen, the hilarious TV show “Portlandia.”
Here’s a funny little clip.
The songs on this record all have a definite “Sleater-Kinney Sound.” They hit on a formula that works – excellent drumming with a fast, driving beat, dueling guitars and multiple vocal parts create songs with energy and urgency, that evoke big feelings. The only song on the record that doesn’t exactly fit this bill is the, well … I guess it’s kind of Sleater-Kinney’s version of a ballad? Maybe? It’s called “Heart Factory,” and it’s Sleater-Kinney with a slower pace:
Dig Me Out is a record that took me more than one listen to appreciate. It has a lot of what I look for in a rock record, but it was hidden beneath a voice that kept me away. When I finally “got used to” the voice, I found I didn’t mind saying I’m a Sleater-Kinney fan. I also found I wasn’t much different than I’d been before – a fan of rock music. I got used to it, and everything was fine. Existential Crisis?
“It’s just you having fun/
– The Who, Another Tricky Day.
Dig Me Out
One More Hour
Turn It On
The Drama You’ve Been Craving
Words and Guitar
Not What You Want
Buy Her Candy
Things You Say
Dance Song ’97
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