Long before the triumphant No Cities to Love, before Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen teamed up to create Portlandia, before the comprehensive boxset, the Bob’s Burgers music video, and Stereogum’s dubbing them as “the best rock band to come along in the past two decades,” there were simply two guitarists and a drummer, in a practice space in Olympia, Washington near Sleater Kinney Road.
By the spring of 1997, Sleater-Kinney had already released two consecutive albums in as many years: 1995’s self-titled debut and the followup, Call the Doctor. Both of which had endeared the trio to critics and listeners, with their brash, feminist lyrics and anti-consumerist overtones. But it is their third album, Dig Me Out, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary today, that resonates as the band’s first real splash as a wider phenomenon.
Guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker play in top form, subverting the traditional “big, loud power chords” approach to punk in favor of harmonizing, complementing riffs. Drummer Janet Weiss marks her first appearance on a Sleater-Kinney record here, providing driving percussion that rattles off the speakers like suckerpunches to the ears—in a good way. The trio struck a winning formula here; after the departure of three drummers prior, Weiss remains with the band to this day. At times throughout the album, such as on “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” and “Words and Guitar,” the dynamic becomes blistering in the cathartic way that great punk rock can.
But it is not all flash and trash. Here, Sleater-Kinney shows off their range in mid-tempo tracks like “Heart Factory,” which smacks faintly of Nirvana washed in dense fuzz. With “Buy Her Candy,” they delve into an even-keeled track, featuring only two sparse guitar parts and no percussion, which resolves in just over two minutes. On “Dance Song ’97,” synthesizers are introduced.
In exploring the various moods and tempos, the band displays a great awareness of how to pace an album. One of punk’s major downfalls has always been, and continues to be, that full albums can easily become monotonous affairs. Sleater-Kinney knows when to push hard and when to pull back, the appropriate time to grab for the throat versus the heart.
And Dig Me Out, most importantly, has a whole lot of heart. This is not to suggest quaintness or fealty; throughout, it covers an extraordinary range of anger and hurt. As ever, the band gnash their teeth at sexism, often by exploring humans affected by it. From criticizing the expectations of motherhood in “Little Babies” (“Come inside I am the shelter / And then when you’re feeling better I’ll / Watch you go”) to the harrowing image of an assaulted, disappearing woman on closer “Jenny,” to the testament to the guitarists’ breakup with each other on “One More Hour,” Tucker and Brownstein tackle a wide spectrum of themes. Thus, we are treated to an experience that offers infinitely more heart than an album made entirely of love songs.
What criticisms could be leveled toward Dig Me Out—the melodies become somewhat repetitive, one or two songs could have been cut—are more matters of personal taste than of objective quality.
Twenty years on from the strongest album of their initial run before hiatus in 2005, the claim that Sleater-Kinney is the best rock band of their time—which, if you’re keeping score, puts them in competition with greats like Pavement, Pearl Jam, Green Day, and a plethora of other paradigm-shifting acts—does not feel too lofty. They haven’t achieved the same shattering mainstream success as these contemporaries, but record sales and concert attendance have never been sole signifiers of greatness. Few, if any, others have been as prolific, lasting, and re-inventive with each subsequent release as Sleater-Kinney.