Wow. That’s about the most intelligible thought I can come up with after listening to The Woods, the seventh record by Portland trio Sleater-Kinney. Well, that and “holy crap,” or “Goddamn.” But after that, I start degenerating into a morass of profane interjections that aren’t suitable for younger readers. It’s just that The Woods is a whole new kind of record from Sleater-Kinney. One we didn’t expect. One we didn’t see coming. One that just rocks so hard, it shakes you around, messes you up and leaves you craving more.
The first thing you notice about The Woods is how fucking loud it is. Subtlety went out the window with the first track, “The Fox.” A screech of feedback, then all of a sudden Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s dual guitar assault comes at you like a semi truck with no brakes. In that moment, the Sleater-Kinney of All Hands on the Bad One and Dig Me Out seems to have disappeared, only to be replaced by some sort of Kevin Shields/Thurston Moore-like creature with distortion to spare. Not that S-K was ever a quiet band, but this song absolutely destroys. Even when the drums cut out and it’s just a bare-bones guitar and Corin vocal arrangement, there’s a tension underneath just waiting to recoil when the drums start up again, Tucker wails “Laaaaand ho!” and the wall of distortion explodes yet again.
But it seems like a tease, because for a brief moment, “Wilderness” recalls One Beat‘s “Step Aside,” employing a soulful, almost funky take on the Sleater-Kinney sound. It seems like Tucker, Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss are settling back into the style they’ve championed for over a decade. Then the stomp and swagger of “What’s Mine is Yours” puts that notion to bed as the girls channel their inner Stones and Zeppelins. About two and a half minutes in, as well, the song collapses a into Sonic Youth-style noise freakout. However, “Jumpers,” by comparison, could be compared to one of SY’s more melodic moments, a la “Dirty Boots.” In a restrained verse, Brownstein and Tucker sing in unison about jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge: “I spend my afternoons in cars/I sit in traffic jams for days/don’t push me I am not okay.” Yet the song quickly becomes one of the band’s most anthemic, not unlike “Combat Rock,” Sleater-Kinney’s political raveup of 2002.
With the production talents of Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), the PDX trio gets treated with a whole different set of ears and hands. And though his previous work might imply psychedelic joy, in this case, he’s turned an already rockin’ band into something more fierce and ferocious. Even Brownstein’s stripped-down ballad “Modern Girl” quickly becomes washed in torrents of noise by the end. And on the subject of Carrie, for once her vocal performances have achieved the intensity and power that Tucker is usually credited with. In the first single, “Entertain,” Brownstein goes from sassy into a seething, hysterical banshee, finishing the last verse with a gloriously cleansing fit of screaming.
Sleater-Kinney have always been terrific songwriters, impressive musicians and genuinely admirable human beings. And none of that’s changed, but on The Woods there’s an entirely new level of depth added, most evident in the last two tracks, the 11-minute epic “Let’s Call It Love” and the minimal, haunting and dubby “Night Light.” It takes a couple listens to fully appreciate how incredible, but when it hits you, you’re left absolutely dumbfounded. After hearing this album, I’m convinced that there’s nothing Sleater-Kinney isn’t capable of.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.