(Sub Pop; 2005)
By Amir Nezar | 8 July 2005
There are precious few people for whom I have as much respect—both in terms of taste and analytics—as I have for my fellow writer Dave Goldstein. But in a very rare instance, I will have to disagree with him about a towering album from our favorite genre, that genre being the one and only rawk. That album being the much-lauded The Woods from Sleater-Kinney.
As you might remember from Dave’s review, he talks to some extent about the low standards for music today, that we briefly fawn over merely decent acts because few, if any, great ones can really get us excited anymore. Esteemed colleague Aaron Newell expressed his dismay several weeks ago at the use-and-shelve ethos of the listening public, that the notion of growing to truly love an album is missed somewhere in the name-drops and sophisticated nods of approval.
Both make apt points; I understand the wonderful feeling of saying “I need this album.” But somewhere between both guys’ points lies an observation that’s easily passed over: many of us understand, if unconsciously, both of their points, and are probably at least somewhat aware of them (this being the unstated source of legitimate cynicism). As a result of that self-awareness (“You know, I haven’t really listened to any of my top ten albums in any of the past two years”), I worry that we grow too eager to love an album. That eagerness has a familiar ugly brother—hype, which we all rightly loathe—but we’d do well to also stem our eagerness to pass lukewarm judgment or exalting praise. To fail to stop and really take in and analyze the albums we listen to before making a declaration – that’s like telling someone you love him/her within hours of meeting that person, and then trying to make the shoe fit.
So I’ll blame the effusive praise for The Woods on that eagerness. The Woods is indeed loud, it is indeed aggressive, it is indeed, as Dave put it, “incredibly intense.” But none of those qualifiers answer the question “is it good?”
I’m not just picking a backlash bitch-rant for shits and giggles, though. Of course it’s clear that The Woods is pretty good. Hardly a single track on the album is lacking in a strong hook, big riff or excellent drumming. But hardly a single track on the album is lacking in excess, nearly psychotic theatrics, and (something you miss on the first few listens) formula. It’s strange, perhaps, that the latter aspect should fit so neatly with the first two – but at the end of the day, the excess and psychotic theatrics are as calculated as every Big Moment on The Woods. Put simply, The Woods is almost totally uninteresting, and worse, it sounds poseur-ish. This album doesn’t show Sleater-Kinney becoming a true psychedelic rock band; it shows them trying on a psychedelic rock band’s clothes, and overplaying the part so earnestly that its fakeness is almost paralyzing. I’ve given the album over a dozen and a half attentive listens, and now I can’t even get past “What’s Mine is Yours” before becoming numb to its assault.
A number of you probably won’t believe me. But consider the following.
Corin Tucker shreds her vocals every chance she gets. The almost epileptic theatrics she strives for are often completely unnecessary, as she full-out yodels almost every verse, not to mention her blistering choruses. She sounds apoplectically intense all the time; nearly everywhere, her affectation is more overbearing than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O.
Dave Fridmann’s production is borderline ludicrous. Shit, man, “The Fox” is cranked up to motherfucking 11! But why? What does the song’s artificially jacked volume actually accomplish, musically? Positively nothing. S-K may sound raw as bleeding tiger roar, but then you might realize that it’s a strategic choice. The production values were, as Mr. Goldstein rightly notes, specifically chosen for their vibe. But that’s a cheap move. Praising it is similar to loving lo-fi just because it’s lo-fi. In the end, the harsh production is a subtle lie to cover over the formulaic nature of the songwriting here (which I’ll get to momentarily), in an attempt to lend it a veneer of spontaneity.
What about those righteous solos? Good sweet God, stop to look at them and they turn out to be travesties. Yeah, those are backwards effects on “What’s Yours is Mine”’s solo, but the actual solo is just a slosh of almost incoherent chords and notes. Hendrix could pull off such nonsense in his National Anthem solo because it was not only more skilled, but because the symbolism of a black dude playing a drugged out, torn-up rendition of a token of U.S. identity in the ‘60s was fucking huge. For S-K, their huge solos have no real interesting content, and 70% of the time, aren’t even particularly skilled.
Then there’s the formula. It takes surprisingly few listens to uncover the same rehashed strategy: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, huge extended interlude, and a final iteration of a verse and/or chorus. I’m dead serious. All but perhaps two of the songs here are structurally identical. It’s impossible to say that seeing the whole album’s uninventive, repeated structure doesn’t take away from it. Nor do the songs’ total internal predictability – verses and choruses are rarely developed from one bar to the next – help matters. The only track that manages to make the formula really interesting is “Jumpers,” largely because that interlude has some interesting guitar-interaction. I’m not going to deny that some of the riffs within that structure are borderline-inspiring, but it seems fair to ask whether they’re superfluous.
Which brings us to the excess part of the equation. There’s an unbelievable amount of it. Jimmy Page, if he chose, could have filled the Zep’s songs with so many riffs that a guitar enthusiast would have just messed his pants all the way to town. But songwriting integrity (cohesion, quality) has to do not with just big riffs, but some notion of tightness, of the ability to cut out the unnecessary. An artist displays some manner of aptitude when he/she can say “we don’t need this,” or “what point does this riff really have beyond sounding really cool?” Of course, the standout culprit in regard to needless wankery is “Let’s Call it Love,” whose endless jams are mind-numbing. Tucker tries to spice it up by, you guessed it, singing at the top of her lungs, and then even louder. And, of course, soloing.
Naturally, these criticisms aren’t intended to imply that The Woods is crap. Of course it isn’t. There are a bunch of fun-as-hell instances within songs like “Jumpers” and “What’s Mine is Yours.” But it’s not an album with very much compositional or production integrity, and it’s completely predictable. It’s an album of “fuck yeah!” moments, but woefully little else. There are only so many times you can pump your fist to the same huge riff before you seek the details and innovative dynamics that really make albums worth coming back to.
For Mr. Goldstein, The Woods reminds us of how low our standards for rock and roll are. But I have to respectfully contest that, actually, we know our standards have dropped low when tons of critics call The Woods the best rock effort of the year just because it’s loud, riff-heavy, and overwhelming. Perhaps the greatest irony is this: for all the interesting points Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Newell make about easy-scrapping, short attention spans etc., it’s clear that The Woods is trying to capitalize on those flaws in us-as-listeners by appealing to all our worst habits of wanting instant gratification. But if my colleagues are right (as I think they are), that also means that The Woods is setting up S-K for the same fate as all the bands that take on the same strategy. It’s a matter of recognizing that S-K is now no different from them in ethic, only in their grotesque use of distortion.