Electric lady band

By Johnny Ray Huston for The Guardian, SF.


Sleater-Kinney let loose the classic rock beast within.
 

THE OLYMPIAN WOMEN are now Dionysian. With The Woods, Sleater-Kinney take a long-overdue step outside of their signature sound into wild terrain, emerging with the rock album all others will have to be measured against this year. The difference is clear in the first seconds, as "The Fox" 's opening peal of feedback is sledgehammered by one punishing wall of distortion after another, all of which ultimately rocket-blasts skyward in that increasingly compressed way Kevin Shields's did once upon a time. Then Janet Weiss interrupts it all with a savage drum roll. Immediately, it's apparent what kind of album producer Dave Fridmann has helped the trio make not a bell-tolling soft bulletin, but a skin-scouring explosion.

When Sleater-Kinney vaulted into rock savior status with Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out, it was because a song like "Little Mouth" had force-of-nature ferocity. At that point, Corin Tucker's singing was the chief reason why. On Dig Me Out's title track, that voice a boiling-kettle sound surging with increased intensity over guitar riffs that were hook-like in the literal, rather than pop-language figurative, sense was something to marvel at. Here was an untamed noise that could simultaneously pierce your eardrums and make your chest ache. Pure punk rock 'n' roll.

But over time, Tucker's voice became less of a weapon and more of an unnuanced effect, the vibrato increasingly overfamiliar grating in its predictability. On "The Fox," it's baaack, but exaggerated to operatic effect, coupled with uncharacteristic, gut-based bluesy lower notes and shouts that fight to make themselves heard amid the bedlam. One of The Woods' pleasures is that Tucker doesn't lazily fall back on what's reliable. She reins in the quivering, shuddering quality and instead almost casually lets loose notes (as on "Wilderness") that could peel paint off a ceiling. Mixing things up, she takes on different personae, from the scary mama of "What's Mine Is Yours" no postpartum lullabies for her to the greedy bed-bound mistress of "Let's Call It Love." It's past time for a producer to do something with Tucker's awesome voice, and on those songs, Fridmann does, sending her sustained notes echoing through dark caverns.

It could be argued that The Woods' peak moments occur when Sleater-Kinney are being Sleater-Kinney, that the album's overall experimentation adds newly sharpened edges to their trademark approach. "Jumpers" and "Entertain" have the vocal trade-offs and tightly coiled riffs of yore, but they also have something more. In the former, it's a vivid narrative, with Weiss's rollicking drums pushing the song forward toward a fatal date with the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge. Built from the sweet justice of Carrie Brownstein ripping apart all the MTV boypunk clones who aren't fit to lick her boots, the latter track rises from "I Wanna Be Yr Joey Ramone" 's grave, following the same trajectory of tight, winding verse and boomeranging chorus, but with added musculature. Spitting contempt for rockers who peddle 1984 like whores and do nothing new with 1972 ("Where's the fuck you? / Where's the black and blue!"), Brownstein gives the best vocal performance of her career, taunting the listener with the possibility of bored insincerity before ripping her voice to shreds for freedom's sake.

The song structures are more effortlessly complex, Tucker and Weiss's rhythmic bedrock stronger. Brownstein's solos are blistering. Taking the focal-point role away from Tucker's voice, her guitar work on The Woods is pretty-ugly and sometimes awe-inducing, as when "What's Mine Is Yours" slows to a woozy backwards passage that's like Jimi Hendrix stuck in sludge. The bravura finale of "Let's Call It Love" and "Night Light," a 15-minute uninterrupted epic, allows all three members to channel their inner Led Zeppelin. Tucker's nuclear Plant voice and Weiss's Bonham beats sometimes fight to keep up as Brownstein improvises a series of Page-shredding solos. Psych rock the rolling balls of gnarled barbed wire created by underrated shoegaze-era proto-grungers Loop keeps entering the picture.

Even back in their early days, Sleater-Kinney built a Bic-waving anthem, "Jenny," to close Dig Me Out. Traces of The Woods creep from the cracks of the trio's earlier records, from All Hands on the Bad One's obscure standout track "Pompeii," to One Beat's "Light Rail Coyote" and "Sympathy." The tension between punk roots and a classic rock beast inside runs through these 10 songs, pointing to the fact that this is a group with frustrating realms of untapped potential. The best bands sound like no one but themselves. Sleater-Kinney are one of those bands, and they'll continue to be whether they're crafting quiet folk songs (a future idea) or forging headbanging anthems. The Woods is by no means a perfect album "Steep Air" lumbers through a series of unimaginative heavy-handed romantic metaphors, and "The Fox" 's children's fable about a serial seducer verges on ludicrous but it can trick you into thinking it's 1969, that a throwback can work, that rock can still send shock waves through a fucked-up world. It's that big of an album, and that's no small feat.