By now, you've probably read much of the press surrounding Sleater-Kinney's newest album, The Woods You probably already are aware that it's their first album on Sub Pop after releasing their last four on Kill Rock Stars. You probably know it's their first working with Dave Fridmann, best known for his work with the Flaming Lips (and his actual band, Mercury Rev). And you've probably heard that it's something of a departure for them - more ambitious in scope and more confident in its skin, even as they try on some heavy, psychedelic new costumes.
But what many of those reviews have missed is the fact that s-K have been quietly building a career based on the idea that they cannot keep remaking Dig Me Out and Call the Doctor ad nauseum. In other words, they've been "departing" from the style that earned them such a devout cult following from 1995-1997. Whether it's trying their hand at Kim Gordon-inspired minimalism on The Hot Rock, bopping their way through All Hands on the Bad One, or busting out the theremin and synths for the overtly political One Beat, s-K has been finding ways to alter the bombast without losing their edge - or their consistent brilliance. So to some, The Woods may sound like a new direction for the band, but it still centers around the same stinging riffs, Janet Weiss' intense drumming, and the vocal give and take between Carrie Brownstein's girlish pouts and Corin Tucker's wild caterwauling. And it may also represent some of the band (and producer's) best work in this current decade. And yes, it's the best album I've heard so far in 2005.
What is the band doing this time around? Well, classic rockers like Led Zeppelin are this album's most frequently cited influence, and the backwards-looping guitar that interrupts "What's Mine Is Yours" certainly brings the comparison to the fore. But the girls out-thrash even Zeppelin on the woozy opener, "The Fox." And they don't just stick to bringing the noise, either: elsewhere, they out drone their lo-fi contemporaries on the verses of "Jumpers," a dark exploration of both sides of suicide, and out-charm any number of the "cute" bands on the fun "Wilderness." Those are but three examples of songs that don't sound like anything other than just vintage Sleater-Kinney. Take the interlude away from "What's Mine Is Yours" and you can throw that song in that category as well. In fact, the only two songs that aren't immediately recognizable as belonging to s-K are "Modern Girl" and "Let's Call It Love." We'll get to those later, but the point is that for all this talk of "departure," the band is largely staying true to its roots.
Fridmann makes his presence felt without bringing in the horn and string sections you might expect to hear from the guy who produced The Soft Bulletin. Rather, he adds a low rumbling (think "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1") to augment the band's bassless attack, and, like he usually does, he filters Janet's drums through a single microphone to add some organic distortion to the mix. The resulting hum adapts to each song's flow, remaining unobtrusive for the quieter numbers and providing another layer of fuzz to the rockers. If, as has been hinted at, the band had some difficulties with their producer during the recording sessions, it does not show on the final mix. But again, even though they don't have a bassist in the band, they've used similar techniques to compensate on previous efforts.
No, to these ears, the most intriguing development on this record that sets it apart from previous ones is the development of vocalist Carrie Brownstein. Dig Me Out felt like it was Tucker's album, and the subsequent three have felt like split affairs. But this one, even with Tucker handling main vocals on the first and last songs (not to mention the album's longest track) feels like it's Brownstein's record. Too often dismissed as "the quiet one" or the "too girly one," on The Woods, she is simply an artist coming into her own creatively, showcasing range and charisma only hinted at before. The middle of this album features a three-song mini-showcase of Brownstein, as though by design to serve as her coming-out party. First is the bluegrassy ballad "Modern Girl," which includes a chorus of "My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day." It's trite and silly, yet because of Brownstein's earnestness, it works. But just as it's about to wear out its welcome, the scorching drums that open "Entertain" kick in to serve warning: strap in, because this track is about to kick your ass. Brownstein growls her way through this barnburner, spewing her acrimony at the current music scene. Okay, it's well-worn territory, but s-K aren't simply content to aim for the fish in the already bullet hole-ridden barrel; no, they're going after the critical sacred cows who have spearheaded this new-wave revival. "you come around like it's 1984 / you're such a bore / 1984" goes one already oft-quoted line. It's not difficult to imagine who the targets are. Wonder if they're the same ones the group dissed in "You're No Rock and Roll Fun."
After that, we get some welcome levity in the form of "Rollercoaster," on which Tucker does sing the first half, but it's Brownstein's bridge that sends it into summer pop bliss, the kind Fridmann happens to specialize in. Two songs later, they embark on a true musical journey with the 11-minute "Let's Call It Love," an opus that portrays the constant struggle that is a long-term relationship, builds towards an extended guitar solo. But, unlike when any other band tries something like this, it does not sound self-indulgent or superfluous. It just sounds oddly appropriate. Perhaps like the perpetually annoyed lover at the center of the song, it's just something we're willing to put up with from such a great band. Or perhaps sometimes it's just fun to listen to a guitar solo. Either way, I'm giving them a pass here.
Granted, if they follow that "bold new direction" instead of the one explored on "Rollercoaster," I might not be so forgiving.