sound patrol 6-9-05
Radical departure into the Woods
Being a feminist rock fan is a lot like being a gay Republican — theoretically possible but, in practice, often demeaning. If you insist on living out the oxymoron, be prepared to embrace contradiction, if not outright abuse. Rock & roll, after all, is rooted in the ritualistic celebration of male sexuality: Elvis’ pelvis; Chuck’s ding-a-ling; the iconic Warhol crotch shot on the cover of Sticky Fingers. Why do you think they invented the term “cock rock”?
Imagine, then, the cognitive dissonances that afflict the feminist rock band. How tiresome to be told that, despite your testosterone deficiency and your chirpy girlie voice and your soft little hands, your band has balls. As tempting as it might be to believe that now, decades after Patti Smith first out-Jaggered Jagger, sexiness no longer requires being a sex object, the culture says otherwise: For every Patti Smith, there are a thousand Paris Hiltons.
Sleater-Kinney, an all-woman power trio from the Pacific Northwest, has been fighting the good fight since 1994. Against all odds, the band has reclaimed the rhetoric of rock & roll, drawing strength from the inherent ironies and subject/object dichotomies, creating complicated sexual politics from ideals that, in lesser hands, might have produced mere girl-power propaganda. More important, though, S-K actually rocks. With each album, guitarist/singers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss (who replaced original member Lora Macfarlane) have built on their trademark sound — the intertwining double-guitar leads, the contrapuntal vocal tradeoffs, the volcanic epiphanies — and taken it in new directions without abandoning the basic template. From the cerebral punk of the early albums to the folky harmonies and girl-group flourishes of 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One and the gospel-inflected polemics of 2002’s One Beat, the band has managed to reinvent itself while remaining defiantly unique.
Whether it’s because of a three-year break from recording or the old seven-album itch is impossible to say — whatever the reason, The Woods is a radical departure, even for a band that’s taken more risks in its 11-year career than entire teams of NASCAR drivers. In the first few seconds of the opening track, a punishing voluntary of distorted guitars announces S-K’s intentions: to get outside its normal comfort zone. Instead of releasing the CD on Kill Rock Stars, their home since 1997,┬áthe members decided to move to Sub Pop; instead of the usual jagged minileads and tight song structures, they indulged in late-’60s guitar heroics and feedback-drenched improvisational breakdowns; instead of recording with John Goodmanson, who produced most of their previous CDs, they enlisted Dave Fridmann, best known for his ornate psych-abstractions with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. With both band members and producer shedding their stereotypes, they’ve set out to recruit new fans, not just appease the cheerleaders.
But cheerleaders needn’t fret. Despite the rampant Hendrixisms and righteous fuzz, Tucker still howls and keens with that breakneck vibrato, Brownstein still yelps and snarls and coaxes weird but irresistible leads from her guitar, and Weiss still pounds the skins with furious precision. And the songs! Although any one of the 10 tracks would have been a highlight on any other album, the overall quality is so consistent, the sequencing so inevitable, the juxtapositions so compelling, that singling out a particular track does a disservice to the others. From the delirious hooks and chugging riffage of “Jumpers,” a song about suicide, to the coruscating art-punk of “Entertain,” from the dizzy, cowbell-fortified tease of “Rollercoaster” to the 11-minute guitar freakout “Let’s Call It Love,” The Woods is not so much a collection of songs as a composition, its axis bold as love.