June 23, 2005

Sleater-Kinney "The Woods"

I love to begin music reviews with big and bold assertions, so here’s another one for our readership to argue over: right now, Sleater-Kinney is the ONLY indie-rock band I can think of that has spent the last 10 years getting incrementally better with each and every album they release. Whenever Sleater-Kinney puts out a new record, you already know that: 1) singer/guitarist Corin Tucker will have a tighter grip on her banshee wail, 2) fellow singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein’s fingers will be a bit more limber, 3) drummer Janet Weiss will come a few steps closer of realizing her dream of being Keith Moon’s little sister, and 4) together, the band will have a new set of rock anthems that mix the personal, the poetic and the political more smoothly than ever before.

For a while, though, it seemed as if Sleater-Kinney’s excellence was being taken for granted. 2002’s One Beat received a comparatively ho-hum response, despite the production, musicianship and songwriting all bearing a noticeable improvement from that of its predecessor All Hands on the Bad One. For the first time ever, the band’s career needed a kick in the pants…and judging from the recent interviews I’ve read of theirs, no one knew this more than Sleater-Kinney themselves. Thus, they holed up in upstate New York this winter with Dave Fridmann, a producer who’s known for guiding bands through drastic reinventions, and got in touch with the classic rockers buried inside of them. The result is The Woods, an album in which they assert that they don’t just want to be your Joey Ramone --- they want to be your Led Zeppelin AND your Blue Cheer too!

The change is apparent from the first 20 seconds of opening track "The Fox." Fridmann’s distorted production makes the band sounds as if they’re being run through a ghetto-blaster connected to a Big Rat. The fog doesn’t clear up until the first verse, during which Carrie’s string bends seem calculated to induce nausea. Corin’s voice unleashes chilling, bluesy howls that One Beat's final track, "Sympathy," only hinted at. The lyrics examine a brief relationship between a naïve woman and a deceitful man. Whereas the song could’ve easily become a predictable feminist screed (for that, skip four songs to "Modern Girl"), they turn the song into an Aesop-style morality fable by changing the characters into animals. Both the warmer tone of the lyrics and the heaviness of the staircase guitar riffs betray the playful and freewheeling nature of the rest of the album (the sole exception being "Jumpers," which is about suicide).

The second track, "Wilderness," boasts the choppy, trebly Television-style guitar interplay that we’ve come to expect from the band. For the first two minutes of the song, it seems as if the bombast of "The Fox" is a thing of the past…until Carrie cuts loose with an abrasive, fuzzy solo and the other two members follow her through a lengthy psych-rock detour. This strategy is employed on many of the album’s other songs, most notably the 11-minute "Let’s Call It Love," which comes closest to replicating the intense instrumental jams that the band often ends its live shows with.

Corin and Carrie also break loose vocally, delivering some of the most dramatic performances they’ve ever committed to tape. On "Entertain," Carrie disses faux-"new wave" bands, screaming the words "you did nothing new with 1972" by screaming them as if she’s about to choke somebody. When Corin sings about the futility of waiting for a bad relationship to get better on "Steep Air," her slurred, off-key delivery perfectly matches the fatigue and resignation described in the lyrics. One song later, "Let’s Call It Love" finds Corin comparing sex to wrestling and delivering come-ons like "a woman is not a girl/I could show you a thing or two/I’ve got a long time for love." It makes me feel like Robert Plant time-traveled back to the ‘70s and got a sex change!

I will admit that Fridmann’s production takes some getting used to. The climax of "Modern Girl," in particular, made me think my subwoofers were blown. It wasn’t necessary for him to push all of the levels into the red all of the time. Otherwise, I think The Woods should be the album that finally pushes Sleater-Kinney on the other side of the line that separates the indie goddesses from the mainstream darlings. If it doesn’t, you can’t blame it on the band. This is, as usual, their best album yet.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.sleater-kinney.com
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com

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