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Sleater-Kinney - The Woods

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Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Album: The Woods

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: May. 1, 2005

The three years that have passed since Sleater-Kinney released their last album, 2002’s One Beat, have not been happy ones: between the war in Iraq, the re-election of President Bush, and the appointment of a torture-condoning Attorney General, Americans have plenty to complain about. Nonetheless, as Sleater-Kinney noted on One Beat’s “Combat Rock,” dissent within the music industry seems minimal, as listeners seem to prefer blinged-out rappers and faux-punk suburbanites to anything vaguely political. One Beat’s call to dissent seems to have fallen on deaf ears, and its successor, the tellingly-titled The Woods is rife with frustration and rage. It also happens to be a musical tour-de-force, and probably Sleater-Kinney’s best album to date.

The salvo of feedback that kicks off “The Fox,” the first track on The Woods, makes it immediately clear that S-K’s sound has undergone some big changes: the mix is heavy on bass, tempos have slowed down, and distorted guitar leads abound. As its title connotes, the album has a rather primitive and underproduced feel (despite the presence of indie mega-producer Dave Fridmann); guitar solos, heretofore rare in S-K’s discography, are abundant, and Corin Tucker’s vocals are more impassioned than ever before. Although obviously carefully arranged, the songs capture the spontaneity and energy of live performances, avoiding the more polished sound of some of the band’s past albums.

Despite the fact that S-K have never shown strong retro tendencies, The Woods seems inspired by the spirit – both musical and ideological – of the late sixties: the effects-laden guitar break on “What’s Mine is Yours” is pure Hendrix, and the 11-minute “Let’s Call it Love” follows in the tradition of blues-infused psych outfits like Blue Cheer and Cream. Perhaps more importantly, the album is marked by a mood of anxiety and immobility, similar to those that characterized much of Vietnam-era rock: if One Beat was a call to arms, The Woods is a reprimand of the sluggish troops, questioning the impossibility of any effective action. “Wilderness” suggests a retreat to a west coast hippie lifestyle as a possible antidote to political disillusionment, but pessimistically concludes that “all the little wishes have run dry.” The same statement could be made in respect to popular music: it’s hard not to see a parallel between the post-Vietnam era decline of revolutionary rockers into commercial schlock merchants (Jefferson Starship?) and the ’90s heyday of indie groups on major labels giving way to an era in which even seemingly-rebellious acts are carefully designed and marketed by the few remaining goliaths.

If any track is capable of summing up Sleater-Kinney’s raison d’être, it’s the blistering “Entertain,” in which Carrie Brownstein boldly declares, “If you’re here because you want to be entertained / please go away!” A scathing critique of the superficiality of today’s music scene (and by extension our entire culture), the song targets both artists and consumers. As for the first, S-K clearly have in mind the impeccably-dressed young groups that England seems to turn out monthly basis (“You come around sounding 1972 / You did nothing new / Where’s the black and blue? / Where’s the fuck you?”), as vapid as they are stylish. But a public that opts for such shallow ear candy is equally guilty, if only because a taste for spoon-fed pop music is symptomatic of a more general submission to mainstream culture and media that encourages the kind of ignorance and indifference that S-K rail against. The message, lest we forget, is deployed in unqualifiedly anthemic form, amidst churning power chords and the insistent barrage of Janet Weiss’s drums.

The Woods is, appropriately enough, the densest and deepest work in Sleater-Kinney’s discography. If it lacks the immediate appeal and accessibility of One Beat or All Hands on the Bad One, it feels more mature and meaningful than either. Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss reach their peak here as performers and songwriters, and Fridmann’s production provides a sense of warmth and spontaneity unequalled by their earlier work. While it may be tinged with pessimism and negativity, The Woods is ultimately an exhilaratingly positive listen; it’s full of the passion, sincerity, and creativity that no Franz Ferdinand or White Stripes, let alone a Britney or an Avril, could ever fabricate. Most importantly of all, it serves as a giant “fuck you” to mainstream culture by showing it precisely what it lacks, proving that even amidst bullshit commercialism and superficial trends, great rock music still exists.

By Michael Cramer

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