(Sub Pop; 2005)
By David M. Goldstein | 24 May 2005
If you read CMG with any regularity, you’ve probably noticed we tend to churn out an inordinate amount of positive reviews. This is the third “best of year” rating we’ve handed out in as many weeks, we’re not shy about rating much lower than that, and we practically abuse the 70-79% range of our scale on a weekly basis. Sure, it may seem like we love everything, but that’s only part of the problem; the weekly update nature of our site dictates that we have to be selective, and most folks would prefer to read about the good shit, anyway. So, until we get paid to do this (Ed: Hahahaha), why waste valuable time by listening to crappy records merely for the purpose of having your website look tough?**
I’d surmise that we habitually crowd the 70% range because it’s the dumping ground for a records that the entire staff can appreciate as being unquestionably “very good,” if precious little else. These albums are well written, well produced, and probably get listened to eight or nine times before being reduced to space holder status in your already huge collection. To continue rehashing a line of thought that CMG’s Aaron Newell already captured in far better form with his Russian Futurists review a few weeks back: generally appealing to a wide variety of right minded indie-rock folk, everybody can appreciate these kinds of records, but can anybody be truly excited by one?
Stick with me here. I’m going to be exposed to at least a hundred different albums over the course of this year. Of those hundred, at least fifty of them will be “good.” Another twenty will be “very good.” Maybe ten will be “awesome,” and those albums will make my proverbial top ten and force me to kick down money to see those bands live, the ones who compose their albums on laptop computers notwithstanding. Franz Ferdinand was an “awesome” record that held my top spot last year. I listened to that album on repeat last year for maybe a week.
It’s taken the new Sleater-Kinney record to confirm what I had already suspected for far too long: In terms of excellence in rock and roll, my standards, and I’m guessing the standards of the average CMG reader, are way too fucking low. A cursory listen to The Woods raises a host of important questions. Has it really been that long since I’ve been genuinely ‘excited’ by a rock album? A: Yes. Isn’t it the point of rock and roll to be exciting? A: Yes. Why do so many unexciting bands exist? A: Because our low standards allow them to. Why can’t I go forty minutes without feeling a burning, and quite likely unhealthy desire to listen to the 2:50-3:50 portion of “Let’s Call It Love?” A: Because it’s exciting. It’s also the most intense minute of music that Sleater-Kinney has laid to studio tape in their seven album, ten year career, and features the best use of a bell for added emphasis since the last second of Radiohead’s “The Tourist.”
Sometimes a little hyperbole is the only way to get things across. It’s not like I’m going to completely cease listening to anything that doesn’t stir my loins like “Let’s Call It Love” does, but The Woods will still seriously force me to reconsider how I utilize the CMG scale from here on out. Furthermore, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already a major supporter of the Sleater long before The Woods’ imminent release, and had already fallen in love with these songs some time ago from repeated spins of a recent New Year’s Eve bootleg. But who cares? I know what I like, and no amount of bias on my part makes this record any less of an achievement.
In fact, The Woods may even be too good in the sense that it makes a sizable portion of Sleater-Kinney’s back catalog sound dated by comparison. So unyielding is the RAWK on these ten tracks that otherwise perfectly fine older tunes like “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” and “Words + Guitar” can’t help but seem a little meek compared to hulking behemoths like “What’s Mine Is Yours” and “Entertain” (less of a problem with songs from the Roger Moutenot produced The Hot Rock; which, to these ears, has aged far better than the John Goodmanson produced albums).
The overly tidy production values of the John Goodmanson-era are but a memory. Dave Motherfucking Fridmann yanks the feedback knobs way past 11 to create an unholy racket far more in line with a Bleach-era Nirvana demo than anything that used to remotely resemble Sleater-Kinney. Granted, early Nirvana didn’t exactly choose to sound lo-fi, so Fridmann isn’t really fooling the listener into believing that The Woods was recorded for six hundred dollars on a 4-track. But the fact remains that the band has never sounded this raw, or this immediate, on record (the production values actually led the girlfriend to straight-facedly inquire five seconds into “The Fox” if my speakers were busted). Fridmann also wisely fills in substantial levels of low end that had been lacking from all prior Sleater-Kinney releases. Although the band technically remains an outfit devoid of four-stringed instruments, Corin Tucker’s Les Paul is now tuned so low that she might as well be playing a bass guitar, and often sounds like she is.
Arguably more surprising than S-K’s decision to scrap their longtime producer is the band’s new direction on the majority of The Woods’ ten songs. No longer satisfied with only being arguably America’s finest punk act, Sleater-Kinney has now somehow morphed into a ’60s psych-metal band from hell. It’s not for nothing that Dead Meadow is opening the East Coast leg of their summer tour, and long time fans fearful of change will surely bristle at the slower, more traditionally classic rock tempos and newfound reliance on guitar solos.
Solos! Deal with it. Fridmann doesn’t skimp on the pedals, using backwards effects on “Wilderness” and “What’s Mine is Yours." The final result? Guitar solos that sound like lost Hendrix recordings from ‘69 when his Band of Gypsys outfit was set to destroy the universe had homeboy not OD’d. Although the lurching Sabbath riff and frenzied punk bridge of “Let’s Call it Love” has little in common with the pensive eeriness of album closer “Night Light,” Brownstein earns her Haight-Ashbury stripes by connecting them with a fireworks laden JAM that fuses “L.A. Blues” with Europe ’72. The entire sequence runs just past the fifteen minute mark—the two songs segueing into one another as smoothly as “Scarlet Begonias” flowed into “Fire on The Mountain.”
The obvious remains. Brownstein plays the shit out of her guitar, Janet Weiss is still John Bonham with bangs, and nobody who’s ever harbored a past dislike for Corin Tucker’s cathartic shrieks will find anything here to change their mind—even if the sky high strains of “The Fox” comprise her finest vocal performance to date. It’s probably clear by now that there’s very little I don’t like about The Woods. I like Sleater-Kinney, and I like psychedelic rock. I like Sleater-Kinney playing psychedelic rock. The Woods is an incredibly intense rock record even by S-K’s lofty standards; it’s a call to arms that will hopefully force complacent indie kids to demand more from their rock music while exposing the “fake Gang of Fours” (a Brownstein phrase) for the useless nostalgia mongers that they are.
**Weezer and Louis XIV most recently, and understandably, excepted.