It’s really too bad we’re all so jaded now. In the universe that is rock ‘n’ roll, almost every new release has at least one major reference point (or “trick”, as a large percentage of bands have proven). We’ve heard it all before. We’ve seen it done better. A band with early critical acclaim can mathematically determine when the reversal of accolades will begin, regardless of the quality of the output (check in with the Arcade Fire in 2008). Others find tepid reviews but all the right moves garner them a second listen and MFA-worthy essays (see “Paul Banks sounds NOTHING like Ian Curtis You Philistine Swine”, circa one year after Interpol’s debut), only to have that backlash, too. Now, try being the band from the early 1990s who are now on their seventh release and, get this, have never broken up (thus no revival acclaim). How do you get people to listen to you? No one knows, of course (Robert Pollard suggests complaining). But if you’re Sleater-Kinney, you learn some new tricks and give it everything you’ve got. We’re still jaded, but maybe The Woods could be a wake-up call. If we (the critics and the listeners) let it.
For three out of their last four records (including The Woods), Sleater-Kinney have maintained that they wanted to try something new. On The Hot Rock, they broke rank with John Goodmanson and worked with producer Roger Moutenot (famed for Yo La Tengo’s dreamy sound). One Beat featured horns and strings. Somehow, both those releases still sounded remarkably like Sleater-Kinney writing a new batch of quality songs. The “trying something new” part was probably what the band needed to get through the existential questions of rock band-ism, but fans still heard basically the same band they always loved. The Woods, though, is indeed a departure. The women have added the sound of classic rock to their punk handbag. Classic rock, as in huge guitars, near-constant drumming, and frequent operatic vocals. As in Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. Sleater-Kinney go straight for the zeitgeist on The Woods. Young punk rock converts quickly learn to cast off these masters. Older and mature punk fans eventually listen to the two styles side-by-side, appreciating the beauty and slow precision of a Pete Townshend solo as much as the amateur energy and joy of the Slits. To have Sleater-Kinney converge upon these styles and create The Woods is a boon to the music world.
It all starts with feedback. Literally one second into the record and you are on the ride, and there’s no getting off it unless you jump. The guitars, as mentioned, are huge. Ferocious. Corin Tucker holds it down (no bass here) while Carrie Brownstein meanders all over the place. You can imagine her fingers bleeding from playing so hard. Janet Weiss has always been an exceptional drummer, but on The Woods she lifts off into the stratosphere. The real thrill, though, is how Sleater-Kinney takes all this unleashed fury (and that’s what it sounds like — fury. Even more so than on any other S-K release) and shapes great, f’n rocking songs out of it.
Dave Fridmann’s production on The Woods is another feather in his cap. He has helped make a record that sounds as if it would be very much at home on any AOR radio station in the 1970s. Listen to this one on headphones. Sounds pulse from one ear to the other. Guitars suddenly jump out of the mix, startling and thrilling the listener. The songs hold their own throughout. “The Fox” is as aggressive-sounding as the lyrics imply (“On the day the duck was born / The fox was watching all along”). “Wilderness”, in turn, conjures up the dense feeling of being lost in the middle of an esoteric nowhere. You look around and every direction looks exactly the same as the last. Elsewhere, “Jumpers” is an agitated almost-paranoiac rant against making a wrong decision, and the moment when we step back from that decision to reclaim our life again. “Modern Girl” slows down to offer a pretty, sarcastic take on standards imposed. “Let’s Call It Love” even boasts a six-minute extended guitar jam. Unlike similar lengthy freak-outs by other guitar-based bands in the recent past, Sleater-Kinney does not attempt to bring the song back to its original melody to provide a sense of structure. It just lets it all play out, with absolutely no apologies. Now, isn’t that rock ‘n’ roll? “Entertain” is the only minor mis-step. Musically, the song is ace. Lyrically, the call-to-arms over shallow bands doesn’t sound as urgent as perhaps Sleater-Kinney wanted it to. (Or maybe it’s my age. Personally, if my girlfriend finds Gang of Four more palatable because she liked the Futureheads and Bloc Party first, I really don’t care. There are better things to think about these days.) That’s a small, small complaint, however. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss are at the top of their abilities on The Woods, and after more than a decade together, that is a feat that should be noted and cheered.
It’s hard to subtly convey the absolute strength of this release. Sleater-Kinney have never really had a miss. It’s their seventh release and a lot of people have short attention spans. Even the best music listener can grow tired (even if it is only temporarily) of a sound or genre. Because of these factors, any determinedly positive writing comes across as hyperbole. Listen anyway, please. There is passionate intensity here. There is a commitment to the visceral, which is lacking in a lot of music today, even very good music. There is sadness, worry, anger, and hope in the lyrics. And there is the kind of record that makes you grateful that you are living in the time in which it is released. The Woods, with all of its “life” metaphors, ends up sounding like that four-letter word: confusing, fucked-up, chilling, and sometimes shatteringly beautiful. It is a record of our time but also one that gleefully reaches back into the past to glorify, not to merely pillage notes and licks for empty consumption. This is ambitious rock ‘n’ roll for us who are here now. In a generation, we can gladly pass it along. The Woods, with all the enormity and secret treasures that the title implies, guarantees that we will.