In the last ten years, rock music has struggled to remain relevant as pop and hip-hop have assumed more cultural relevancy. More desperately, rock music has struggled to continually break new ground, to avoid being a mere throwback, all while still being rock ‘n’ roll, as opposed to (or at least in addition to) post-rock, indie-rock, dance-rock, whatever. As yet another lot of Gang of Four knockoffs gets their allotted five pages of hipster-magazine face time, it occurs to me that, quite possibly, rock has failed miserably in these struggles of late.
So it is a testament to its standing as a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band that, during this time of diminishing rock returns, Sleater-Kinney has done nothing but progress.
Forming in 1994, the band has explored on every release new textures, ideas and emotions, all the while staying within the parameters of singing-strumming-pounding rock. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss don’t do it because they have to — they’re not formalists, purists or even rockists — they do it because they want to. After the music, it’s arguably the trio’s most important aspect. On 1997’s Dig Me Out, they sang, “I make rock ‘n’ roll.” That hasn’t changed.
They also said “Words and guitar/ I want it way too loud” on Dig Me Out, and this has become truer than ever. Their seventh album, The Woods, is their loudest yet. The tenor of The Woods is resolutely set on the first track, “The Fox.” Opening with a speaker-shredding power riff, the track climaxes with a bridge that pits Tucker’s battle-scarred vocal against Weiss’s relentless snare volleys. There, and throughout the album, you can hear all three musicians pushing each other into unknown, dark territory (like the album title insinuates) and loving every minute of it.
As they age, most rock bands’ idiosyncrasies become so integral to their sound they gradually cease to be idiosyncratic. At that point, complacency or boredom or rot usually sets in. But Sleater-Kinney has embraced its uniqueness anew. With the help of a new producer, Dave Friedmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), the band has successfully upped the intensity factor — no small feat, that. The stalwarts of the Sleater-Kinney sound — Tucker’s vibrato wail, Brownstein’s snarling-Doberman guitar tone and Weiss’s rapturous drum pounding — have the immediacy and sting of a freshly opened wound. Brownstein in particular comes into her own on The Woods, whether it’s her exploratory guitar solos or her own vocals, which are more confident than ever, and nastier, too. On the brutal, hipster-savaging “Entertain,” she sounds like Ronnie Spector with sweet, sweet revenge on her mind.
The characters in The Woods are constantly on the move: in a car, on a plane, on a Tilt-A-Whirl. There are temptations everywhere: a wily fox, an alluring new purchase, a once-promising relationship. Though the sentiments are sometimes a little too didactic, as is the band’s wont, here you can always count on the raw music to pay respect to the honest struggles these temptations trigger.
The album’s final eleven minutes are the most ambitious and successful: two songs — “Let’s Call it Love” and “Night Light” — recorded in one take. The first is a savage rendering of love at its most frightening, climaxing in a hypnotizing guitar solo. It effortlessly segues into the final song, a haunted and beautiful meditation on the need for guidance when you least want it. “It’s clumsy when said, so give me a spark I can look for instead,” Tucker sings vulnerably, perhaps addressing a lover, a child, a politician, or a god. Brownstein’s guitar solo concludes with an appropriately prayerful flourish.
It might all seem a bit much, a bit hyperbolic. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Not only does The Woods jumpstart a moribund genre, it also serves as a wake-up call for the zeitgeist.