In the four weeks since the release of Sleater-Kinney’s latest, reviewers have raced to crown the trio queens of the recent hard-rock revival. The Portland Phoenix described the band’s seventh LP, The Woods, as “pre-punk hard rock.” The Houston Chronicle ran a piece under the headline “Sleater-Kinney turns to ’60s, ’70s for inspiration.” And indie tastemaker Pitchfork pointed to the album’s “hard-rock trappings” in a piece that suggested the band was looking to “Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix for inspiration.” Too bad, because though the group has churned out a heavy, praiseworthy album, pegging it as dinorock is just plain wrong.
Most of the blame for the misconception can be placed on whoever decided it would be a good idea to have Rick Moody write The Woods’ press notes. The well-known novelist and indie-rock dabbler broke out plenty of exclamation points, but his most emphatic point is this head-scratcher:
The album closes with an improvisation, recorded in a single, unedited take; that’s right, an improv, which serves as the linkage between “Let’s Call It Love” and “Night Light,” just like on those old Grateful Dead bootlegs, or maybe like in those Led Zeppelin shows from the seventies, a big inflammatory guitar solo passage, with tons of noise, and why you ask, why is this necessary, why even connect the two songs at all, well, because they connect two halves of the experience of human psychology in these rather dispiriting times.
Of course, if the album didn’t vaguely recall the Rockozoic, Moody wouldn’t have had anything to go on. It’s true, superficially at least, that The Woods is reminiscent of—pull one out of a hat—Led Zeppelin. And the group’s hiring of Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann seems to indicate that its members might themselves have been looking for a more psychedelic sound. But listen past the “Whole Lotta Love”– style “uh, uh, uh”– ing on the epically long “Let’s Call it Love.” Get through the obvious Hendrix nod, a lengthy arena-worthy solo complete with backward-guitar overdubs smack dab in the middle of “What’s Mine Is Yours.” Focus instead on the way even the quietest song, “Modern Girl,” sounds as if it’s blowing your speakers no matter how low you have the volume.
Whatever it is—a mastering trick, some extra fuzz courtesy of Fridmann, a snare somebody decided to let rattle—it’s a clue that The Woods is less about the postpsych excesses of the late ’60s and early ’70s than the gritty realism of the Nuggets era. The album begins with a short burst of feedback—a sound one might expect to pour out of a Detroit garage right before practice gets going—and immediately blasts into “The Fox,” a brief, sludgy number that rolls through its chorus/verse/ chorus form with a loose groove and a definite swagger. Like any good first cut, it announces the band’s intentions early and often: Everything about the track is (1) loud and (2) obnoxious. Even Tucker’s typically blustery vocals seem especially raw and in-your-face.
There are other hints of non-Zeppelinitude, too. When someone goes out for a solo on the slinky, postpunky “Wilderness,” the riffage stops suddenly, as if whoever was responsible for that part were reminded midwank that the band used to be on Kill Rock Stars. The guitar lines here—and in “The Fox,” “Rollercoaster,” and “Steep Air”—contain some rather Moore-and-Ranaldo– esque detuning, too. But more important, they’re all three- to five-note basic-building-block stuff—albeit more heavily layered than anything fellow Northwesterners the Sonics might have played. They’re complemented by Fridmann’s production, which gives Janet Weiss’ drums plenty of presence without allowing them to overwhelm the should-be-overwhelming guitars. Those, in turn, don’t cover the words that Tucker and co-vocalist/guitarist Carrie Brownstein belt like never before.
Indeed, on “Modern Girl,” which has little swagger, rock, or roll, Brownstein’s vocals carry the song. That track marks the midway point for The Woods, and after its brief respite, the album builds toward its heavy-as-fuck climax, the 11-or-so-minute “Let’s Call It Love” and the shorter and only marginally less clamorous “Night Light.” These are the songs that so captured Moody’s imagination, and to be fair, there is something of the sheer gratuitousness of both the Dead and Led Zep to that 6-minute improv. Yet there’s also the ecstasy of the groove as practiced by everyone from James Brown to Rites of Spring. And lots of noise for noise’s sake, à la Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. As members of a veteran rock band trying to take the next step, the S-K women have merely reasserted their ability to have a crazy moment—something to make their fans say, “I can’t believe they made an 11-minute song,” to make them pay close attention again. It’s a fine moment, no doubt, but it’s not the one that defines the album.
As for connecting two halves of human psychology, who knows? “Love” is a demand to be worshipped; “Light” is more humble—a request to worship something. Both use the word “bloody”; in the case of the former, it’s hard to imagine it isn’t connected to what Tucker calls “my royal flush.” That overobvious sexual metaphor—next line: “I’ll show you what to do with it”—is typical of The Woods’ lyrical mediocrity. Brownstein busts on the already-out-the-door nouveau-postpunk movement in “Entertain” with “You come around looking 1984/ You’re such a”—What rhymes with “four”?—“bore.” “Nostalgia, you’re using it like a”—yup— “whore.” Tucker fares no better on “What’s Mine Is Yours,” asking “Did you ever get the feeling/That you don’t belong/Said the teacher in the classroom/I think there’s something wrong.” But given the context, it hardly matters. Did the Barbarians or the Shadows of Knight ever have that much to say?
If this all sounds familiar to S-K fans, that’s because it should, bad lyrics and everything. Dig Me Out, the 1997 album most typically cited as the band’s breakout work, rocked the riffage. So did All Hands on the Bad One three years later. Even when the women did a bit of remodeling with 2002’s One Beat, the band’s first true masterpiece, they never really deviated that much from their formula. That album had the rock, too, but thanks to better production it came across with more life. The guitars were fuller and the drums pounded in a way that was newly satisfying. It was as if the band—then still more likely to get compared to Pere Ubu than any Robert Plant project—had finally discovered how to mix, a skill that’s refined with just as much freshness on The Woods.
And that’s the funniest part about this whole thing: Sleater-Kinney is basically the same band it was when it got erroneously lumped in with the riot-grrrl movement a decade ago. These days, it’s hard to find anyone still clinging to that misconception. Give it 10 more years—then we’ll see how many folks believe Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss are the next Plant, Page, and Bonham.CP
Sleater-Kinney performs at 9 p.m. Saturday, June 25, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.