I can’t imagine any woman having left Sleater-Kinney’s March 3 show at the Mercury Lounge without wanting to form a band, and I can’t imagine any man having left without wanting to be a woman. Then again, I never figured I’d fall in love with a girl who lives four states away and thinks Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein bleat like goats, so my imagination can evidently be bushwhacked. Down-to-earthers like me need rock ‘n’ roll to remind us how limited our expectations can be, to repeatedly enact the unfolding of limitless potential on disc and onstage, so we won’t lose sight of the necessary illusion that anything can happen.
That’s not to say anything will happen. In fact, Sleater-Kinney’s success has depended on the reverse, as Tucker and Brownstein slot their guitars’ jagged teeth into the grinding cog of Janet Weiss’s drumming with a precision teetering on OCD. The thrill comes as the rising intensity from each musician threatens to unbalance the tenuous symbiotic stability; we wait for the overheated core to spew springs and screws and gear shafts, but the motor pops and whirs and races cleanly as intended. Until now. Their new The Woods is the sound of Sleater-Kinney unsprung—and also of the band’s machinery persistently lurching forward. Surprise!
Surprise No. 2: They cheat a little. Dave Fridmann, best known for his strung-up streamlining of the Flaming Lips, nudges the din into the red, a gimmick as surefire as anything stored on the Matrix’s hard drive. Weiss pretends to push the limits of recording technology, and caked distortion outfits Tucker’s low-end crunch in full bass-guitar drag. The three women still intuit each other’s moves, but their collaborations are now less a taut trampoline to vault Tucker upward than a solid platform from which Brownstein can improvise. Strutting in full fuck-it-I’m-a-guitar-hero mode, she dive-bombs repeatedly into potential Live at Leeds cacophony only to pull up with her riffage impeccable and intact.
Before you gender that wankery “male,” note Brownstein’s latent discipline on freak-outs like “What’s Mine Is Yours” and heed the insight that Eddie Vedder’s recent Magnet interview of the band threatens to muffle beneath bouts of mutual appreciation. Vedder dubs Brownstein’s style “surfing guitar,” in that she rides the crest of her own music rather than pushing from behind, and that holds for Sleater-Kinney as a whole. Previous albums have never quite captured those onstage moments when the power they generate seems to catch them unawares, but on The Woods you can hear not only the deliberation in Weiss’s eyes as she ponders the exact placement of beat and crash, or Brownstein’s bedroom-mirror rock-star poses, but also the stunned grin Tucker can never contain after emitting her most gravity-defiant shrieks.
To reclaim a perfectly apt adjective from the anti-feminists, Tucker’s recorded vocals have often been strident—purposely intent on inspiration through irritation. Now her increased range and better-rounded wailing elevates the taunts on “Let’s Call It Love”— “A woman is not a girl,” “Hit the floor honey, let’s battle it out”—from tummy-markered grrrl-prop to blues-mama gender aggression. On her fractured fairy tale “The Fox,” the increased trust she places in her voice as it vibrates around the vowels of “Land ho!” belies the song’s unsettling undercurrent of seduction and betrayal.
Yet unsettling it is, and from “Jumpers,” a nervous breakdown in 4:24, to “Modern Girl,” a breezy denial of same with Weiss wheezing harmonica past Brownstein’s blithe la-di-da’s, the lyric sheet reveals a neurosis rarely indicated by the immediate pleasure of the noise up front. And that’s OK by me. Sleater-Kinney’s jitters and discordance once warned that you can’t enjoy the giddiness of anticipation without the flutter of fear. Punk’s duty was once to shatter stasis as America dozed. But with rabid Christo-fascism and laissez-faire devolution humping to breed a litter of tragic inevitabilities, we’re quite edgy enough today, thanks. Now Sleater-Kinney’s exploration of their musical range offers reassurance that moments of crisis are unexpected opportunities for renewal. Anything can happen.