Twenty Years of Dig Me Out: A reflection on Sleater-Kinney’s breakout LP
Twenty years ago today, Pacific Northwest rock trio Sleater-Kinney released its third LP, Dig Me Out, a commanding collection of punk-fueled songs with an apt title if there ever was one. We say that on one level because the record was famously recorded during a snowstorm – one of the heaviest snowstorms in Seattle’s recorded history at that point, dumping between two and three feet of accumulation across the North Olympic Peninsula during the final days of 1996. As singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstien recalls in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, the band had to quite literally dig its van out of the snow to get to producer John Goodmanson’s studio, where it recorded in an unheated live room wearing coats and sweaters.
Whether the whiteout conditions were a contributing factor or merely coincidental, you can feel the urgency across the 13-song, 36-minute collection: the opening title track’s hurtling desperation (“Oh, God, let me in / There’s nowhere else to go”); the barreling punch and crunch of “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” (where Brownstein and fellow singer-guitarist Corin Tucker’s counterpoint vocals engage in conversation about escape); the powerful takedown of normative gender roles in “Little Babies,” propelled by a catchy-as-heck chorus (“Rock the little babies with one two three four”).
That overarching urgency is why Dig Me Out is a fitting title on another level. Players in the Olympia-rooted radical feminist youth movement Riot Grrrl, Dig Me Out landed at the point in Sleater-Kinney’s trajectory where it began to branch beyond the scene that reared it and on to the national field. That’s relatively speaking, of course – the record was released on Slim Moon’s small Portland imprint Kill Rock Stars and the band performed at 200-capacity rooms on tour in support of it. Successive releases would find Sleater-Kinney in bigger and bigger places still. Nevertheless, this was a next-level move for a trio that had been known largely in a geographically-focused community; and given the noisy dude-rock homogeny Sleater-Kinney had to fight its way through on the late 90s indie circuit, digging out is a vivid metaphor, whether intentional or not.
Brownstein and Tucker’s blistering guitar riffs and hooky leads interlocked as often as they jostled against one another, capturing a nervy tension driven forward by Janet Weiss’ raging drumbeats. Most of the album clocks in at the three-minutes-and-under zone, though “Heart Factory” stretches out to show the band flexing its command of dynamics, starting out as a slow burner and progressing into a stampede. Most palpably, album centerpiece “Words and Guitar” captures Sleater-Kinney as three people with something to prove, a band that demanded to be heard on its own terms (“Take take the noise in my head / C’mon and turn it, turn it up”). On Dig Me Out, not only did Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss succeed, they inspired a generation to follow their lead.