Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sleater-Kinney 'The Woods'

Much like the evolution of life (outside of Kansas), the evolution of a good band is a slow and subtle process. Such is the case with these ladies from Washington. For those who are keeping score at home, it's been 10 years and seven albums. Even with that output, Sleater-Kinney have rarely slacked in the quality control department. They cut their teeth with Call The Doctor; grew up on The Hot Rock; got catchy with All Hands On The Bad One; and stretched their arrangements and song craft with One Beat.

Musical growth, sure. But in the end, even the most diehard fan-boy and grizzled riot grrrl knew what to expect from Sleater-Kinney. And perhaps the band felt the same way. How else does one explain the twin challenges the band took on as they got to work on their seventh, and arguably, best album: The Woods?

The first challenge has been dramatized more by magazines and fan blogs than the actual band. After spending their entire careers at the riot grrrl Mecca that was Kill Rock Stars, the band made the surprising switch to the legendary Sub Pop label. Simply switching neighborhoods, or creeping into commercial mainstream glory? Some hardcore fans may begin to wail in dismay ... but if Kathleen Hanna can move Le Tigre over to Universal, then Sleater-Kinney can do what they damn well please.

The second challenge proved to be a little more daunting. At first glance, pairing Sleater-Kinney with Flaming Lips / Mercury Rev uber-producer Dave Fridmann seems like an unlikely match. At second glance, it doesn't look any prettier. But good producers and even better bands know that challenges and tension can bring out the best ... if you let it. And so, during that slow march of evolution, the band took a giant leap forward...

The Woods is a brutal and confidant statement from the first dirty power chord onward. Never has Sleater-Kinney rocked this hard and with this much conviction. The production is thick and raw, with all the loose notes and bleeding frequencies merging into one triumphant assault. The opening track, 'The Fox', puts all the boy-band rockers like Fall Out Boy, Good Charlotte, and Taking Back Sunday back in their place. This isn't your little sister's smoothly produced pop-rock. This is the sound of an angry thunder god beating his children.

The lesson in aural aggression doesn't let up until the steady harmonization on the first verse of track 4, 'Jumpers'. It's a short moment when the ladies in Sleater-Kinney let us know that the 'ol pop-punks are still in there somewhere. Of course, the guitars kick back in and we hold on for dear life. 'Modern Girl' gives us a breather as we are treated with a sunny little pop-song. Then the album gets serious. Not that the melodies aren't there. These songs are just as catchy as we've come to expect. 'Rollercoster' is going on the next summer mix tape I make.

Throughout the album, Corin Tucker coaxes lovely shrieks and howls out of her limited but expressive range. The urgent pounding of Janet Weiss' drums dominate the mix, as Carrie Brownstein's guitar causes the earth to tremble. I don't quite remember the last time I heard an album so honestly heavy. Not the manufactured, 'forced' heaviness of a nu-metal band, or a faceless hardcore band. No, this is the kind of heavy that was channeled during Led Zeppelin's first practices, and Sonic Youth's noise eruptions. Many writers when discussing this album have used the Led Zeppelin comparison. And that observation is not far off. This album has that sloppy, reckless, yet professional feel that still endears the first Zeppelin album to millions.

Speaking of classic rock and Sonic Youth, one can hardly ignore the epic jam that closes the album. The two song finale, 'Let's Call It Love' / 'Night Light', takes the band into uncharted territory. Clocking in at over fourteen minutes, this is the sound of the band reaching its breaking point. You can actually hear everything about to fall apart, only to fall back into place as Janet Weiss fights to hold the band together. Balancing guitar heroics with bluesy noise making, Carrie Brownstein releases every note like it's an exorcism.

I've finally come to accept that Sleater-Kinney will never invite me onto their tour bus to be their long lost bass player. I've also come to accept that Corin Tucker is probably happy enough in her marriage to never look my way... *sigh* ... But one thing I am thankful for is that this CD is here. Waiting to convert a culture of bad music taste...


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