Sleater-Kinney Gets Up

Setting the woods on fire: (left to right) Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein, and Corin Tucker
John Clark

Sleater-Kinney's 2002 album, One Beat, was a "flash of clean white hope," as its opening track put it--a big-bang sparkler that reveled in singer/guitarist Corin Tucker's postpartum electricity and toiled in America's post-9/11 discomfiture. It was also the final record of the old Sleater-Kinney, the Sleater-Kinney where the friction came from within and from three separate parts, manifested by Tucker's barre chords and birdy warble butting Carrie Brownstein's clipped snarl and guitar spikes. Drummer Janet Weiss, who hits hard while singing harmonies honed in her pop band Quasi, held it together, but even on poppier albums like The Hot Rock (1999) and All Hands on the Bad One (2000), the band was still heavy on their trademark disjointedness. Always the music was informed by the warring slow burn of 1996's Call the Doctor and '97's Dig Me Out, albums made back when Tucker and Brownstein were frustrated, intelligent young exes evolving the riot grrl tradition of Olympia's Evergreen College, where the two met and formed S-K in 1994.

None of this friendly separation was bad, but now that we have The Woods, Sleater-Kinney's seventh album, a fresh perspective on a 10-year-old band is like, whoa. Pumped up by a new label (Sub Pop) and a new producer (Dave Fridmann), the ladies sound as unified as if they'd linked arms (as in their inspiring, Miranda July-directed video for the 1999 single "Get Up"). They sound like they decided collectively to weed the friction out. Focused, seething and 50 feet tall, Sleater-Kinney have always been electric, but now they're arcing and filling up the sky.

Straightaway, The Woods suggests that Sleater-Kinney is the only band on earth worthy of, and experienced enough for, Led Zeppelin's reins (but with the advantage of having once been a punk band). The album begins with a whine of feedback announcing "The Fox," a fable that rides Tucker's vibrating wail of a chorus--"Land ho!" Monster riffs blast like surround sound, Brownstein's single-note guitar swagger stamping hooks on the distortion. Producer Fridmann, who reportedly hated the group's other records (what, the dude who gives the Flaming Lips their hot-pink cloud-sound isn't loco about punk production aesthetics?!), translates their live show...aliveness, adding noise to clean up the disuniting debris and exposing Sleater-Kinney for the rock icons they are. Weiss's arms seem in danger of breaking off (especially during the flashy fill-work on the epic "Let's Call It Love"), Tucker's amazing high register fills up more space, Brownstein sounds more natural and vitriolic, and their voices are no longer working against each other, but rather cohering in the album's perpetual ebb. After this release, it's not a stretch to imagine Pearl Jam someday opening for them. (The first time I saw S-K live in '97, incidentally, they were opening for Helium, whose Mary Timony is warming up on this Sleater-Kinney tour.)

The Woods articulates Sleater-Kinney's anger through their biggest vision yet: pissed and pissed about being cynical, they indict our information society and lament its attendant alienation, inside their anger as opposed to looking in on it. Forget preaching, though. They hurl smart barbs from heart-centered places of intellect and experience; the bittersweet, Brownstein-sung anthem "Modern Girl" gets a Weiss harmonica treatment and subtly conveys lonely, fake smiles and emptiness; while "Jumpers," a tale of suicide in San Francisco, whips from line to line with a snap of tension. Dreams and space are all over "Wilderness." It's a song not as explicitly Portland-centric as One Beat's "Light Rail Coyote," but still recognizable for its hippies and white smiles and water, introducing to an island of progressives the tragedy of red states versus blue states. There are songs about love and ruin, bitterness and finality, too, but the band ends the album with "Night Light," which, though despairing and even a little jaded, leaves us with a carpe-diem plea for hope. To misappropriate an old Miranda July catchphrase, Sleater-Kinney is a dare and a promise. As Tucker sings on breakup track "Steep Air," "Who's to say I don't have wings?"

They do, actually. Sleater-Kinney are three of the only female rock stars in history who haven't had to train-wreck their lives, or don Madonna-whore complexes, to build a successful career--and not coincidentally, the over-40-to-teenager ratio of women at their shows is probably more balanced than that of any other working rock band.

That's because Sleater-Kinney is the kind of band that fans become attached to, to the point of using the group to help narrate their lives. I moved to Portland in 1999, not long after a brief profile in Rolling Stone convinced me that if they could realize their dreams in the Pacific Northwest, so could a disenfranchised, small-town lady like me. (Special to riot grrl: You were wrong about the media blackout. For girls in suburbs and remote locales without the internet, friends, or fanzines, the mainstream coverage saved our lives.) For me, back in '97, Dig Me Out fueling the long drive to a depressing job or three in Worcester, Mass., The Woods is Sleater-Kinney as I'd hoped they'd become--and what I hoped to become with them: women, I guess, stronger than in youth and spitting in the face of the dictum that one must become softer, deader, and/or less political with age. And even though so much of The Woods is about rage, despondence, and disconnect--red states, blue states, TV, consumption--it's also a dare and a promise. The Woods is Sleater-Kinney, the greatest rock band in America, with wings.

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