"One trend that I just really can't stand is when I turn on the radio and hear a band, and I honestly don't know if it's 1983 or it's now," says Sleater-Kinney guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein on the phone from her Portland home. "Like, I have no idea whether this is a band that existed 20 years ago or a band that exists today."
But perhaps the lady doth protest too much. Much of Sleater-Kinney's latest, The Woods, the group's seventh album, is like a classic-rock Society for Creative Anachronism. Singer-guitarist Corin Tucker plays Robert Plant, drummer Janet Weiss does her best Keith Moon impression, 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 two-and-a-half-minute punk bombs dropped on '96's Call the Doctor.
Don't worry, though: This new direction is not a fashion statement. 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, gloomy, imposing behemoth of a rock album, delivered by renowned mistresses of quick and dirty, post-riot-grrrl garage punk, is an impressive feat of reinvention.
Sleater-Kinney was born in 1994 in Olympia, Washington, 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 into 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 period without a label that much of The Woods was written.
"Things were pretty uncertain for us," says Weiss. "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 into this mysterious, kind of scary world that ended up being The Woods."
The new, post-apocalyptic Sleater-Kinney world looks very unlike the one in which all the riot grrrls and boys initially met the band. In place of curt, jagged riffs and a sharp, lean beat are grand, heroic guitar solos and menacing, bellowing drums. 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 feeling of being raw and on the edge and 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 territory was influenced by a number of factors. For one, if The Woods sounds as if it was recorded in the actual wilderness by a producer whose puberty was spent in the company of a pack of coyotes, that's because it was -- sort of. The band tracked the album in the isolated wilds of upstate New York with producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, Mogwai), who brought along some of his quintessential trippiness for a howl at the moon with Weiss, Tucker, and Brownstein.
The new sound was also partly the result of the band's tour as the opener for Pearl Jam in 2003. Hearing themselves bounce off the walls of arenas, the ladies felt encouraged to experiment with the way they play. "People are just so into documenting or capturing moments, instead of just being inside the moment," Brownstein says. "And to me, playing live is like this sacred moment, when things are just in the present tense. So we were extending the songs enough to say, '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, the music that I listened to was almost adolescent, like the kind of music people listen to in high school," she says. "Suddenly, I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and Pink Floyd and Cream and Captain Beefheart." She began to find herself more inspired by the risks she felt classic rock had taken. "It just sounded so freeing and so unsafe, and I started to be more drawn to that."
In this sense, then, The Woods is not just about blowing up expectations of what a Sleater-Kinney album should sound like; it also takes 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 as -- if not harder than -- the heroes of yesterday and today.
"[We] needed to make something that was 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. "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'll like it or not, I'm not sure. But I think they do appreciate our hard work."
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