By Kimberly Chun for The Guardian, SF.
THE WOODS ARE lovely, dark, and deep, and what's the dirty little secret that women who rock keep? That they love pop, that they wanna sk8ter boi, or that that they shop in malls?
Like the death-obsessed rider in Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," I can't help fixating – on the oddest bit of product placement to come down the pike since the yupscaling Marky Mark paraded his Calvins hither and yon while making his transition from bad-boy music to best-actor movies: Sleater-Kinney guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein's exposed Victoria's Secret underwear band, in a widely distributed promo photo for Sleater-Kinney's new album, The Woods (Sub Pop). Front and center, it pokes out from her low-riding jeans like the unruly pubes in that Cat Power image by Richard Avedon.
I feel less of an urge to noodge her about tucking that waistband back into her low-riding jeans than I feel the need to wonder about the gaffe, unintentional or no. Didn't the band look carefully at these photos? Was this an intentional shout-out to Gisele's surfboard abs of commerciality, or a simple come-hither, sexy signifier? Or do they just not care, signaling we're-so-hot-we-don't-give-a-shit sloppiness? They're in good company when Bob Dylan catches crap for hawking women's skivs for the same brand, and American Apparel ads generate more watercooler shock and pshaw than pop-star wardrobe malfunctions.
Perhaps Victoria's – and Sleater-Kinney's – secret is that they are crushing hard on that scruffy sk8ter boi they cruise by at the mall, even as they yearn to be him and grasp that rock 'n' roll aggression and power, as Terri Sutton called it in "Women, Sex, and Rock 'n' Roll," the groundbreaking Puncture essay (later reprinted in Rock She Said) published in 1989, on the fertile, bleeding edge of the riot grrrl era that birthed S-K. That's more evident than ever in The Woods, as the woulds and coulds of lives and hopes torn up by "the brutality of the time we're living in," as vocalist-guitarist Corin Tucker tells Devil in the Woods, are less reimagined than veiled in metaphor. Good old boy Duh-bya shape-shifts into the bad boy next door, and the relationship between the yawningly indifferent, thickly forested forces of darkness and caring, feisty, and feral grrrls metamorphoses into the almost clichéd terrain of "he said, she said" male-female relationships. As S-K settle down, make at least one baby, decide they're not quite in league with Kill Rock Stars anymore (hell, they are rock stars), and make themselves at home amid Sub Pop's grunge legacy (and all the male-identification the genre implies), desiring what would be – back in the brave new, albeit recession-wracked, world of the early '90s – is boiled down to maybe-not-so-simple desire between men and women. You know, love songs – between a fox from Mars and a duck from Venus (see: the musically powerful yet lyrically weak – big here equals dumb – opening stumble, "The Fox").
With the exception of hate-myself-hate-this-world songs like "Jumpers" and "Entertain," that terrain doesn't seem overly original – except that it's coming from S-K, the girl-love combo who always seemed to successfully redirect their lyrical gaze toward less clichéd subjects, while finding their own utterly distinctive sound, a sonic cocktail of primitive punk, '70s rock and pop, D.C. post-punk, and a barely sublimated love of cowbells. Regardless of what you think of Tucker's actual full-throated, verging-on-Dee-Snider-nostalgia vibrato, they had a voice. And as much as you applaud the fact that they're venturing into turf that's semi-new and less explored (for them), flying the flannel flag of heavy heavitude, tapping a certain visceral intensity with multiple references to blood (as both bonds and matches), and paying tribute to the twin figureheads of Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult (they angrily puzzle, "Where's the black and blue?" even as they bemoan retro-minded rehash on "Entertain"), one wonders about intention – what's underneath, like undergarments – and games of bait and switch. Are they on Sub Pop because they feel musically more akin to the good old boys of grunge like Eddie Vedder (who recently interviewed the trio in Magnet magazine), or have they just decided to give up, play safe, go rock, and fit in among the head-banging bros from way back when? And perhaps more important, gentle listener, do you cop to S-K for their guitar solos?
Some heads might say the absurdity of that question points to the equally ridiculous idea that guitar solos ... still exist. As lusciously distorted and ear-bleedingly enjoyable as S-K's pectin-heavy jam "Let's Call It Love" is, I can't help but be skeptical about how well the band can pull it off live, and how "live" it was in the first place (judging from this year's show at South by Southwest and Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann's veneer of noise, wind, and fuzzballs on The Woods). Does heavy translate into importance or urgency – just as the song's orgasmic break references the monotone sexiness of Fiery Furnaces' Eleanor Friedberger, right there between Tucker's Robert Plant-like wails of "I've got a long time for love!" and her challenge to "Show me your darkest side / And you better be my bloody match."
That freak-out may be as much a studio concoction as the "White Album," but you can also read it as a challenge to all the boys in the bois. As that old saw goes, foxy War Pigs can spill as much blood as they want, but the ladies know what it's like to wait on those regular visits from Aunt Flo. So bring it, soldier boy. That's how I like my fairytales to end, anyway.