SLEATER-KINNEY, Through the Woods.
By Meghan O'Dell
You know the scene: a dimly lit room; neon bands of color flashing sporadically like helicopter searchlights; a sea of sweat-soaked necks, craning and twisting to catch a glimpse of the guitar-bashing and drum-pounding occurring onstage. A tidal wave of Pixies shirts and black horn-rimmed glasses surround you as you frantically fan your flushed face and shift your weight from one leg to the other to keep them from going numb. But something's out of place: Those sticky limbs surrounding you aren't moving and waving about as they should be. Instead, they're tightly crossed around chests, wrapped around waists, or fidgeting with ticket stubs. And feet aren't flailing in the air; rather, toes merely wiggle around in too-small Converse All-Stars. Incidents like this occur all too often - concert-goers and music aficionados who can't bring themselves to express their love of the music being pumped out on the stage before them; consumers so stubborn and introverted that the only appreciation they give to the band they love is a cursory head-bob and a toe flex here and there.
But you won't find such happenings at a Sleater-Kinney show. The all-female rock trio from Portland, Ore. can make even the most rhythm-challenged people flop and flail along with its driving, rattling beats. And even when the band finds itself in a less-than-desirable situation, such as playing an outdoor strip-mall in Italy, it'll find some way to liven things up.
"Even at our worst shows," lead singer and guitarist Corin Tucker explains, "we can always find something in it to feel good about."
But the optimism doesn't stop there. From the re-election of President Bush to the BBQ in Austin, Texas to their switch to a bigger record label after having been with the same independent label for most of their musical career together, the women of Sleater-Kinney are consistently positive.
Tucker and bandmates Janet Weiss (of Quasi fame) and Carrie Brownstein - who provide heart-pounding percussion and swirling, churning guitar riffs, respectively - are known for infusing their music with political ideologies, sexual innuendos, and otherwise raw emotion. Tucker belts out intelligent lyrics with her larger-than-life, near-blood-curdling vocals, which are chased down by the sounds of a meeker-voiced Brownstein and then kicked up a notch with the chugging rhythms of Weiss' hardy drumming. The trio was initially regarded as part of the fabric of the riot grrrl movement, with Tucker having been one-half of the former duo Heavens to Betsy, and Brownstein (who was trained as a classical pianist) citing bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile as her musical influences. But recently the energy-charged trio has turned to a new (though not so far displaced) agenda - left-wing politics and the potential ousting of G.W. Bush.
Just in time for the moral and ethical debacle that was the 2004 election, the political grassroots organization MoveOn.org teamed up with a score of disparate bands and artists - from David Byrne and R.E.M. to Elliott Smith and Blink 182 - to create The Future Soundtrack for America, a compilation of (mostly) angst-ridden, politically frustrated songs whose proceeds go directly to grassroots political organizations worldwide. Sleater-Kinney lent "Off With Your Head" - a track from 2002's One Beat, which was heavily influenced by the events and aftermath of September 11th - to the album, in hopes that the money raised would help defeat Bush in the then-upcoming election. The band also registered voters at their shows in the spring of 2004 through Music for America, another progressive political organization that promotes the importance of voting to America's youth by way of full-scale benefit concerts.
Although their hopes were dashed when the majority of America decided to once again bite the hand that feeds them, the band remains hopeful. According to Tucker, "It's still important that artists raise their voices against this administration, even though Bush was re-elected, because people on the left have to know they are not alone."
But that wasn't the only life-altering event the band endured in November of 2004. Later that month, Sleater-Kinney made what some long-time fans considered a shocking move: They split with Kill Rock Stars, their label of nearly a decade, and joined forces with behemoth indie-rock label Sub Pop, the label responsible for bringing bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Sunny Day Real Estate into the limelight.
While rumors and allegations always surround label changes such as this like a swarm of angry bees, Sleater-Kinney insists that their relationship ended on good terms.
"We parted amicably with Kill Rock Stars and they continue to be supportive of our music," says Tucker. "[Kill Rock Stars] are a great record label and always pay their bands on time. We wanted to collaborate with a label with a larger staff, however, and have so far had a great experience on Sub Pop."
So with a new record label and four more years of political hell to look forward to, Sleater-Kinney set off on yet another journey: their seventh album proper, The Woods. Produced by the legendary Dave Fridmann (who has worked with the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and, more recently, Low), The Woods stands out drastically as the experimental album in the band's discography. It relies more heavily on aggressive instrumentation than vocalization and features long-winded, Hendrix-esque guitar solos and pedal effects.
"Everyone in the band wanted to challenge themselves musically on this record," says Tucker of The Woods. "We realized that if we were going to make another record, it needed to sound different from anything we'd ever done."
And different it is. The album's opener, "The Fox," features angry, pummeling percussion set against lyrics that sound like they were lifted from the pages of a nursery rhyme. Tucker's vocals match the urgency of Weiss' drumming, as she sings simple lines about a cunning fox trying to dupe a gullible duck into becoming his next meal.
"I think I spent a lot of time reading children's stories," Tucker explains. "I love the image of the fox, always sly and deceitful, and yet always compelling."
The next few tracks stay closer to the band's signature sound, but whereas the songs would have concluded at a little over three minutes on albums like The Hot Rock or Dig Me Out, these tracks delve into instrumental solos that last for minutes. Brownstein and Tucker's guitars create loops and swirls of sound that make listeners feel like they're sitting on the concrete floor of some cold garage, watching the band jam through the night.
"I think we all worked on our musicianship on this record, collaborating to create a new sound for ourselves," Tucker says. "We spent many, many months rehearsing and jamming, and did more rewriting on this album than on any other."
While the songwriting process within Sleater-Kinney is very collaborative, and each member contributes equally to the unique dynamic that exists between them, The Woods seems to bring Brownstein's talents out into the spotlight in a way that fans have never before witnessed.
"Carrie's guitar playing has really taken off," Tucker says of her bandmate's dabbling with guitar solos and space-jam effects on the record. "Her solos are amazing to witness." But she's not the only one experimenting with new gadgets. "I have about five new pedals, some of which I bought before going into the studio, to experiment with different sounds," explains Tucker. "It's a lot of fun."
The Woods is an amalgamation of sounds and musical genres. "Modern Girl" is a light-hearted ditty, complete with surf-guitar and bluesy harmonica, until Weiss comes charging in with a barrage of percussion. "Rollercoaster" is an aptly named pendulum of sound and mood, and the rollicking "Let's Call it Love" clocks in at a near-epic 11 minutes. The album is a gem of experimentation and risk-taking - proof that a band can change its sound in the midst of its career, and can do it well.
And as the band prepares for a short tour that concludes in Austin, Texas with the famed South by Southwest festival, things are still looking up. "I love Austin," says Tucker. "I'm looking forward to some barbeque."