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Into the Woods 

How the riot grrrls of Sleater-Kinney punk'd Keith Moon and Jimi Hendrix

Wednesday, Jun 1 2005
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"One trend that I just really kind of can't stand," Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein tells me on the phone from her Portland home, "is when I turn on, like, the radio and hear a band and I honestly don't know if it's, like, 1983 or it's now. Like, I have no idea whether this is, like, a band that existed 20 years ago or a band that existed today." "Entertain," a track from Brownstein's band's latest album, The Woods, drives her abhorrence home, railing against the mind-numbing uselessness Sleater-Kinney finds in, among other things, the latest wave of "old is the new new" rock.

But perhaps the lady doth protest too much. Much of The Woods, the group's seventh album, is like a sort of classic rock Society for Creative Anachronisms. Singer/guitarist Corin Tucker plays Robert Plant, drummer Janet Weiss does her best Keith Moon, and Brownstein makes like Hendrix. The band waxes psychedelic on tracks like "Wilderness" and tries its hand at quasi-British Invasion blues-rock on "What's Mine Is Yours."

Which is a few measly light-years away from the 2-1/2-minute punk bombs dropped on '96's Call the Doctor.

Don't worry, though: This new direction is not a fashion statement. Indeed, what sets The Woods apart from its retro-rock contemporaries is Sleater-Kinney's deftness at avoiding the trap of what Brownstein calls "imitation without any kind of inspiration."

Well, that, and the fact that The Woods, a murky, imposing, gloomy behemoth of a rock album delivered by renowned mistresses of quick and dirty post-riot grrrl garage punk, is one of the most jaw-dropping feats of reinvention ever.


Sleater-Kinney was born in 1994 in Olympia, Wash., an outgrowth of the riot grrrl scene, the punk feminist movement aimed at making space for women in rock. Initially a side project for Tucker and Brownstein, who were in Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, respectively, the band coalesced in its current form when Weiss joined a few years later. The trio honed a prickly bare-bones buzz, complete with Tucker's signature vocal calisthenics, which sound like a kind of powerhouse bleat. A series of releases on indie labels Chainsaw and, predominantly, Kill Rock Stars met increasingly with the respect of peers, as well as critical adulation and media attention.

In 2003, after Kill Rock Stars informed the band that it was going to be cutting back on office staff, Sleater-Kinney amicably split with the label. The band spent a year without a home before signing to Sub Pop in 2004. It was during that labelless period that much of The Woods was written.

"Things were pretty uncertain for us," says Weiss, over the phone. "We had no idea what label we were going to be on. Our booking agent had just retired. Our publicist had just retired. We just felt like, the future is really uncertain, you know? Because of that, we delved sort of fully into this mysterious, kind of scary world, you know, that ended up being The Woods."

The new, post-apocalyptic Sleater-Kinney world looks very unlike the one in which all of us wannabe riot grrrls and boys met the band. In place of curt, jagged riffs and a sharp, lean beat are grand, heroic guitar solos and menacing, bellowing drums. Instead of pointed, get-in-and-get-out two- and three-minute garage rock tracks, there is a cutesy critique of anesthetized complacency that modulates from harmonica-driven crispness into feedback and fuzz ("Modern Girl") and an 11-minute foray into coyly epic Zeppelin-ness ("Let's Call It Love"); rather than barbed, explicit political statements, there is a warped, distortion-heavy fairy tale ("The Fox") narrated by Tucker, who punches all the most thrilling bits like any good storyteller by taking her love-it-or-leave-it trill to brawny, decibel-busting heights we've rarely heard it reach. The band's usual taut, clean punk and post-punk meticulousness has been usurped by a brooding, feral sludginess.

"It's a fairly uncomfortable record, start to finish!" laughs Weiss. "And we wanted to take that as far as we could, take that sort of feeling, you know, kind of being raw and on the edge and being uncertain and exaggerate it. ... We really wanted to play with expectations of ourselves and explore these areas that we hadn't before."

This exploration into uncharted Sleater-Kinney territories was influenced by a number of factors. For one, if The Woods sounds like it was recorded in the actual wilderness by a producer who spent puberty with a pack of coyotes, that's because it was -- sort of. The band recorded the album in the isolated wilds of upstate New York in the studio of Dave Fridmann (producer for Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, Mogwai, etc.), who brought along some of his quintessential trippiness for a howl at the moon with Weiss, Tucker, and Brownstein.

The new sound was also partially the result of touring as the opener for Pearl Jam in 2003. Hearing themselves bounce off the walls of stadiums encouraged the ladies to really experiment with the way they play, and play with, their songs, both onstage and off. Brownstein says, "People are just so into documenting or capturing moments instead of just being inside the moment. ... And to me, playing live is like this sacred moment where things are just in the present tense. ... So we were extending the songs enough to say that, like, let's extend this moment as long as we can, you know?" On The Woods, the band simply took the concepts of expansion and improvisation and stretched them into 10 tracks that ooze with pure rock-god haughtiness.

Brownstein admits that the album was also influenced by changes in her own listening tastes. "It was interesting because I felt like, in the last couple years, it's like my guitar, the music that I listened to was almost adolescent, like the kind of music people listen to in high school. Suddenly, I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and Pink Floyd and Cream and Captain Beefheart -- I guess not many high school kids listen to Captain Beefheart!" she says with a laugh. Brownstein adds that this shift was due at least in part to her disillusionment with the watered-down, formulaic, anemic descendants of punk rock she heard on the radio. She began to find herself more inspired by the risks she felt classic rock took. "It just sounded so freeing and so unsafe, and I started to be more drawn to that."

In this sense, then, The Woods is about not just blowing up expectations of what a Sleater-Kinney album should sound like, but also taking another look at the nature of punk and the history of rock itself. A punk band that plays tripped-out 11-minute jams in order to reinvigorate the original danger and anti-establishment intent of the genre is messing with the very idea of what punk is. And as women speaking and playing to their interest in guitar-god fodder, Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss are repopulating the canon with strong females who can wail as hard, if not harder, than the heroes of yesterday and today. This move isn't just about proving for the zillionth time that women can cut it in the boys' room -- it's about making rock 'n' roll over completely into a space that was always about both men and women.

"[W]e needed to make something that was, you know, urgent and unsettling and full of uncertainties and ambiguities," says Brownstein, which points to the fact that this is not an easy album to listen to. Fans of the classic Sleater-Kinney sound might really hate it. I'm still not entirely convinced that I like it. But I respect it. And that is what Sleater-Kinney is looking for. According to Weiss, the band isn't too concerned that its devotees will be torching copies of The Woods in the streets. "I feel like if we're sincere about what we're playing -- and we're so excited about this record that I can't imagine that's not going to translate into excitement for the audience. ... Whether they like it or not, I'm not sure!" she laughs. "But I think they do appreciate our hard work."

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Rachel Devitt

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