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Sleater-Kinney: The Woods

Sub Pop, 2005

Rating: 4.6

 

Posted: May 23, 2005

By Peter Landwehr

Sleater-Kinney has delivered an album that should give notice to other rock bands currently entering their second decade or longer: It’s possible for a veteran group to expand its sound without sacrificing an ounce of its passion or integrity. The Woods is a radical stylistic departure from the Pacific Northwest-based trio’s previous work.

Complementary guitarists/vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (and drummer Janet Weiss) executed a similar stylistic shift with their second-to-last release, 2000’s All Hands On The Bad One, in which they used conventional pop melodies and slower, more graceful arrangements in combination with typical fast-paced hooks and dueling vocals to craft one of their most accessible albums. The Woods is the anti-Bad One, burying conventional pop-rock structures beneath distorted fuzz and an often-deafening wall of feedback to pay tribute to classic guitar heroics. That’s not to say that The Woods isn’t accessible -- it just doesn’t aim to please as obviously as Bad One. It's as if, having conquered punk, Sleater-Kinney listened to old Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix albums and figured, hey, we can do that too. And, boy, do they -- masterfully so.

The Woods’ opening cut, "The Fox,” explodes with Tucker's wail at its most shrieking-banshee arresting as she belts out lyrics that seem inspired from a dark children's fable regarding a fox trying to coax a duck out of the water in hopes of making a meal out of it. The track is a declaration of war on everything one knows about the band. Weiss pulverizes the skins, and the guitars of Brownstein and Tucker play off of one another with furious intensity. Throughout The Woods, guitar chords hum behind a disconcerting backfill of noise, every note treated to the meticulous production techniques of Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Phantom Planet, Mercury Rev).

Longtime fans may lament the dearth of tracks featuring patented back-and-forth verses between Brownstein and Tucker, but thankfully there’s the passionate “What's Mine Is Yours” to help ease the pain. Backed by a rolling beat, feedback and heavy distortion, the two singers manage to integrate the band's familiar sound with newer, more adventurous sonic explorations (one of the least of which being a sustained, feedback-fed guitar solo). "Jumpers" is a dark duet about leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge that brilliantly self-destructs the moment its main subject strikes the water. "Rollercoaster" is an exultant combination of peppy handclaps, cowbell and ooh-wa choruses that ruminates on relationships and their similarity to (yes, you guessed it) an amusement-park ride.

There's the solid groove on "Wilderness" that struts its way across the great pacific northwest, and the rapturous, folksy “Modern Girl,” the finest ironically sweet song that Sleater-Kinney has ever made, building light guitars and drums to a climactic, wonderfully static-y pile-up as Brownstein despairs over being put on a pedestal ("My baby loves me / I'm so angry / Anger makes me a modern girl"). But the album’s centerpiece is actually the penultimate track, the sexually-charged, sweaty "Let's Call It Love", which is essentially an elongated jam session that segues flawlessly into the reflective, at-wit’s-end closer, “Night Light.”

The fact that a band spawned over ten years ago is so willing to try new things is refreshing, but with The Woods, Sleater-Kinney has surpassed even its most ardent supporter’s expectations as to the artistic heights the trio can attain. Regardless of what one says about the nature of development vs. experimentation, The Woods is an undeniably varied collection of songs that cohere beautifully -- tracks throb with chunky guitars and beats that are both strident and irregular, coming together to give muscle to the album's stated theme: the darker regions of the human heart (thematic material that, if not handled carefully, could easily lead to generic "emo" rock with nothing to say beyond woe-is-me angst). Toss in the homage to rock gods of yesteryear and it all adds up to the finest album Sleater-Kinney has burned onto tape.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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