The Great Destroyers
I've just told one of my rock'n'roll heroes that I hated her new record… at first, anyway.
"Really? Well, that's good!" laughs Carrie Brownstein, guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney, completely un-phased. "I think a lot of people are going to have that reaction. That was kind of the point. We wanted to create something that was pretty unsettling."
The Woods is the seventh album for Sleater-Kinney. It follows 2002's One Beat, a work that perfected a formula that they started in the ashes of the riot grrrl wave of the early '90s, a formula that they maintained during rock'n'roll's dark days near the turn of the century - days that were even darker for proudly political and feminist guitar bands.
And once you've perfected the formula, it's time to milk it or move on. Singer/guitarist Corin Tucker explains, "When you've been a band for ten years, it becomes an issue of, 'Why do we need to make another record?' We all felt that if we are going to make another record, it has to be really different and something we haven't done before."
The Portland, Oregon trio decided to challenge everyone's assumptions of the band - their critics, their fans, and most certainly their own. For other rock groups, this usually means keyboards, strings and horns, all of which appeared on One Beat to subtle yet profound effect. On The Woods, it means focusing on what they had already: even more guitars, even more throttling drum fills, even more excursions into the vocal stratosphere, and deconstructing their songwriting process.
"We wanted to destroy any perceptions people had of us," says drummer Janet Weiss. "How are we going to live up to One Beat? By doing the same thing? We went as far as we could with that record. We poked and prodded each other to find some new territory. We found some new vocabulary to talk to each other with. It's still just the three of us. This record's not that weird, when you get down to it. But for us, it's different. And different is something that's intimidating."
The Woods opens with two seconds of strangled feedback that give you little warning before an avalanche of distorted guitars and drums come crashing down. Soon enough a tornado of whooshy guitar swirls upwards, wrapping around your eardrums until the song opens up into sparse guitar chords bent wonderfully out of shape. Once some of the smoke clears, Corin Tucker unleashes her banshee wail, singing "Laaaaaaand, ho!" By the end of the song, Corin is screaming the phrase "noooo! looking! BACK!" at the top of her lungs - a height, by the way, that gives most of us vertigo. The rest of the band has their heads down, buried in guitar pedals and galloping drum rolls.
Carrie knows the first impression is jarring, but that's the point. "People are so interested in everything following a form and meeting expectations and being instantly gratified," she continues, sounding out of breath. "These days, the whole idea of creativity really challenges the way people expect to be entertained and feel good. I love Fiery Furnaces for that reason. I love Joanna Newsom for the same reason. Her voice - some people love it and some people hate it. More than ever, I appreciate bands that have a make or break element - bands that aren't palatable to everyone. It's good to have artists that are on the edge of love or hate, because at that point you feel they're doing something risky."
The Woods is certainly risky. It also feels transitory, in some ways like Sleater-Kinney's "mature" album, 1999's The Hot Rock. But that album softened the edges; this one sharpens them. Exhibit A is "Let's Call it Love," an 11-minute cock rocker that will be The Woods' dividing line. Here, Carrie embarks on a long, meandering guitar solo while Corin's oddly metallic vocals will give her cringing critics even more Geddy Lee ammunition, making the track their most indulgent and confrontational.
Drummer Janet Weiss explains, "When we wrote 'Let's Call It Love,' we were agitated after listening to something that we thought was so tame, and we were just fed up with passivity, with music being so soft. I get tired of pop where there's no danger, no edge and no substance. That song in particular is not meant to make you feel comfortable at all. We felt uncomfortable when we wrote it. We wanted to the person listening to it to feel uncomfortable. That was part of the writing and recording of the song."
The Woods' first single is "Entertain," in which Carrie asks, "So you want to be entertained? Please look away/ We're not here because we want to entertain… don't look away." She goes on to challenge the necrophilia of nostalgia, whether it's '80s new wave or '70s garage rock. "You did nothing new with 1972," she sings. "Where is the 'fuck you'? Where is the black and blue?!" By the end of the verse she's screeching like she's lost her shit, grabbing her target by the collar and demanding that they get their hands dirty, embrace the chaos and jump into the unknown. She doesn't just talk the talk; the track is an immediately gripping rocker that eclipses anything they've done since their 1997 breakout album Dig Me Out.
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