Carrie Brownstein-Guitar, Vocals
Corin Tucker-Vocals, Guitar
Janet Weiss-Drums, Backing Vocals
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
The Woods was produced and engineered by Dave Fridmann
They came from the Pacific Northwest! They were young, and they had things to say. At first, it appeared that the weaponry, the system, the strategy, consisted of a lead singer who had an uncanny urgency to her voice, more so than anyone since Patti Smith, enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. That was the first part of the weaponry, this lead singer, and the second part consisted of a remarkable chemistry between the two guitar players, viz. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. One guitar seemed on occasion to finish the other’s lines, and vice versa, as if they were performing the medieval form called the hocket. Initially, these were the strategies. It was urgent, it was fierce.
They came from the Pacific Northwest! The second album, Call the Doctor, did things that could not be done on the first. Suddenly there were two voices, not just the amazing lead singer. There was the second voice, with its urbane, sexy drawl, fitted exactly around the first in a kind of contrapuntal exercise that was precisely calibrated to what the guitars were already doing. The noise got noisier. Where the songs had orbited around a certain feminist rage on the eponymous first album, the message got deeper as the noise got noisier, especially on “I’m Not Waiting,” and “Good Things,” and “Taste Test.” Sleater-Kinney wasn’t waiting to make the transition from promising girls to women, they were taking, and they were allowed.
They came from the Pacific Northwest, but they were beginning to sound like they weren’t from a particular region, but maybe from the entire recent history of rock and roll. Dig Me Out, their first unremitting masterpiece, in which the tempos occasionally slowed, and the dynamics were more varied, all the better to allow the lead singer, Corin, to emerge from the howl somewhat, and for Carrieâ€™s more vulnerable voice to be more melodious and frontal than before. Also: a not-to-be-underestimated strategic coup. New drummer! Whereas there had never been a problem with the prior drummer, Lora McFarlane, she did seem to be chasing after the songs sometimes, instead of leading them. Not so with the amazing new drummer Janet Weiss, whose virtuosity and ability to find room for fills anywhere is as admirable and satisfying as any drummer in the punk tradition, etc. Dig Me Out was friendlier, more intimate, but it wasn’t any less passionate. They may have come from the Pacific Northwest, but they weren’t going to be ghetto-ized there, in the hippie-friendly blue states.
The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One, the albums that followed in 1999 and 2000, consolidated the triumphs of Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out, and this is not a bad thing. The songwriting team revealed that it seemed to have an endless reservoir of those angular guitar riffs favored especially by Brownstein, guitar riffs that managed to sound both playful and funky, in the way that Pat Place’s guitar used to sound in the Bush Tetras. This is satisfying, to know that a certain way of playing has innumerable variations. There also began to appear on the horizon a certain devotion to the possibility of melody, hooks, and to the instrumental coloration and variation that might be brought into what is after all a rather simple ensemble (two guitars and drums, with the occasional bass part on the recordings), a tiny bit of piano here and there, maybe an organ part, etc. Of these two middle period recordings, All Hands, with its frank erotics, its laments about anorexia, and its tour-band laments, seemed the more satisfying, evincing particular continuity in the use of John Goodmanson as producer, who worked on all the band’s early albums except The Hot Rock.
Which brings us to the second masterpiece, One Beat, and the idea of a Sleater-Kinney television appearance. Or the idea of a Sleater-Kinney spot on some enormous world tour replete with buses and jets and roadies. Sleater-Kinney opening for that famous grunge band. Sleater-Kinney beginning to conceive of itself as a global organization, though remarking on this ambition is certainly to overlook the stunning array of styles and pop-music dexterity on One Beat, from Led Zep style riff-mongering on “Light Rail Coyote” (a song, it is pleasing to know, that is about exactly what it says it’s about), to the political consciousness of songs like “Far Away” and “Combat Rock,” the ersatz Motown of “Step Aside,” in which, e.g., the violence of the world outside, and the domestic responsibilities of motherhood vie with the horn section in one of the funkiest punk rock songs ever recorded. Everything on One Beat reflects the confidence of a band of adults playing music the way they want to. Carrie sounds like Cindy Wilson from the B-52s, or Lene Lovich, and her guitar playing uncannily mimics Peter Buck on Document-era R.E.M. There is wah-wah, there are synthesizers, there are sing-along choruses, there are hints of the blues, and, so I am told, they even started dancing onstage.
If there were only the six albums described above, Sleater-Kinney would still be one of the most reliable, most creative, hardest rocking bands of the late nineties, which was not a period, after all, noted for much good rock and roll. They aren’t a metal band, with tricky solos and lots of complaining. They aren’t an R&B band with a canned drummer and a lot of come-ons. They don’t rap, at least not yet. If the movement from Sleater-Kinney to One Beat were the whole story, it would be a great story. They came from the Pacific Northwest, from the land of hemp and used bookstores, and they conquered the world.
But this isn’t the end of the story. Now, before us, we have The Woods, which appears in the Sleater-Kinney catalogue as opus number seven, and like many things with sevens on it, it features an itch, a need to try new things. Sometimes people get scared by new things, which is one of the reasons people are disappointing. This is to say that you should not be afraid of new things, dear reader, which in this case amounts to a really much more ambitious idea of how the studio can be used, like on the massive upsurge of guitars in the children’s book parable The Fox, which opens the album. The drums are recorded with a panoramic quality they have never had before, and there’s Corin wailing in such a blood-curdling way that you would believe anything she told you, and all she’s telling you is “Goodbye, little fox.” This is the first difference: studio smarts.
But studio smarts is just a means to an end. It doesn’t imply that longtime Sleater-Kinney fans will not find what they love, namely the strange, delirious interlocking guitars and the way Carrie and Corin seem to finish each other’s lines, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a bunch of great melodies. But it does mean that it’s okay to have guitar solos. Yes, perhaps no development on The Woods is as indicative of the grab-the-rock-world-by-its-throat thrust of the album as the guitar solos. Everybody knows that Sleater-Kinney was never noted for guitar heroics. Well, if that’s your version of the story, start here with “What’s Mine Is
Yours,” a two-chord number in which the two guitars pick-up the opposite ends of the rhythm, in just the way the singers alternate verses, until, at the 2:13 mark, the song breaks out into an awesome silence, after which Brownstein’s Hendrix-style guitar solo, replete with backwards sections and wall of fuzz, erupts, lasting an entire minute before the drums return. It’s as satisfying as the ear-splitting second half of Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce,” or the Ira Kaplan wall of sludge on Yo La Tengo’s Painful. And that’s not the only guitar solo. There are several!
If guitar heroics are not enough, there’s an ersatz jazz number. “Jumpers,” in which Carrie and Corin sing unison on the verses in a way that resembles Petula Clark. There’s a nice keyboard part, too, and the lyrics are about California, about the Golden Gate, and about, yep, about jumping from the bridge, and there are A, B, and C sections, and there’s no real chorus, because the new ideas of The Woods also include new ideas about song structure, like that there doesn’t have to be a chorus in the usual place, and you can solo whenever you feel like it, passion is the thing, emotion is the thing, art is the thing, and art can knock you out, disorient you, unsettle you.
And there are the drum rolls on “Steep Air,” and the insistence that the listener “please go away” on “Entertain,” which features Carrie’s desperate shouting, and there’s a catchy chorus on “Roller Coaster,” and the way Corin sings the words “cherry tomato” there, and the feeding-back of guitars on the out-chorus, and the incredibly sweet and beautiful and unadorned ballad by Carrie, “Modern Girl.” Never has purchasing a television sounded like such an integral part of contemporary romantic experience, never have a sinisterly droning synthesizer and a harmonica seemed like such appropriate bedfellows, and never has the shift from the present tense (“My baby loves me”) to the past tense (“My whole life looked like a picture of a sunny day”) seemed so telling.
The album closes with an improvisation, recorded in a single, unedited take; that’s right, an improv, which serves as the linkage between “Let’s Call It Love” and “Night Light,” just like on those old Grateful Dead bootlegs, or maybe like in those Led Zeppelin shows from the seventies, a big inflammatory guitar solo passage, with tons of noise, and why you ask, why is this necessary, why even connect the two songs at all, well, because they connect two halves of the experience of human psychology in these rather dispiriting times, these dark ages, the first half, “Let’s Call It Love,” being the totally outrageous and very sexy desire part of the story (“A woman is not a girl/she could show you a thing or two,” or: “Let’s call it my royal flush, I’ll show you what to do with it,”), the second half representing the domestic impulse: “How do you do it/This bitter and bloody world/Keep It Together and Shine for Your Family.” And the ligementary connection is the inarguable greatness of the instrumental passage, sort of like the over-the-top soloing in “Whole Lotta Love.” In fact, rarely has a band digested the influence of the Zeppelin catalogue in such a creative and diabolical way. The point of the improvisation is that it sacrifices everything to feeling, it throws everything onto the fire, in the name of provocation, the better to illustrate the kind of Dionysian/Apollonian opposition of Carrie and Corin, the enraged, the outraged, the unignorable, and then, differently, the tender, the melancholy, the gentle, each of these things in each of the players, always completed ornamented and augmented by
Janet’s amazing drumming.
They came from the Pacific Northwest, but they won’t be stuck there. They want history, they want time, they want art, they want to deal with culture, they have demands, they have needs, they have vision, they have aspirations. And now they have The Woods.