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The Gamblers

Sleater-Kinney Makes A Stab At Greatness With Its Ambitious New Album

Deanna Staffo

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/22/2005

Rare is the punk-rock band that makes its best music 11 years after starting. Few punk bands even make it to the 11-year mark and those begin repeating themselves long before they arrive. But here comes Sleater-Kinney with The Woods (Sub Pop), the trio’s most ambitious, consistent album since naming itself after a highway exit in Olympia, Wash., in 1994. Though the band’s sonic signature—the squalling wail of Corin Tucker’s soprano, the staccato chop of Carrie Brownstein’s guitar, and the fast-hard push of Janet Weiss’ drumming—remains instantly recognizable, Sleater-Kinney has taken enough artistic gambles to keep itself vital.

The first gamble was to leave the safety of its Pacific Northwest turf and record in western New York with Dave Fridmann, who has also produced the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Fridmann challenged Brownstein and Tucker to make their guitar parts bigger and heavier; he even got Brownstein to play some actual solos.

“Our music is more complex because we can do things that we couldn’t do when we started the band,” Tucker explains. “We’re all at a higher skill level, and we’re able to switch gears more easily. I can switch from a simple barre chord to an actual bass line on the guitar, and Carrie can switch from a repeating riff to an improvised solo. That adds to the dynamics. It allows us to write a very different kind of song, like ‘Rollercoaster,’ which shifts into a whole other middle part and then back again.”

The lyrics match the stakes raised by the guitars. “Rollercoaster” begins with some delightfully sexual food metaphors: “Down at the market, pick out a ripe one/ Tempting me sorely, and I want to bite one.” The lovers’ appetites wane with time, and the singer finds herself tumbling from the relationship’s highs as if on a roller coaster. As the churning music evokes the lyrics’ vertigo, Tucker asks if she can “go back to the way things were.” In other words, how can you keep the initial spark alive in a relationship or career as the years roll by?

These are dangerous but crucial questions for punk musicians—or anyone, really—who find themselves moving past 30 (Brownstein turned 30 last year, Tucker is 32, and Weiss turns 40 in September). By lyrically asking these questions—and by not pretending to have ready-made answers—Sleater-Kinney takes the most important gamble that gives The Woods its claim to greatness.

“The questioning you can do in a rock song is not always about coming up with a solution or providing an answer,” Tucker says. “It’s more about wondering out loud. We’ve written both kinds of songs—songs about speaking our minds and saying what we think and songs that tell the story and question the way things are. One Beat [Sleater-Kinney’s 2002 album] was overtly political and had a lot of real good protest songs on it. We wanted to do something different on this record. We wanted to make it more personal, more about telling stories, asking questions to which we didn’t have the answers.

“For me personally, part of that questioning is looking at how I balance my family and my rock ’n’ roll career,” she continues. “How do I make things as good as possible for my family and for myself and my music? How do I keep that passion alive in my relationships and in my art? The only way to do that is to be really honest with yourself and with the people around you.”

True honesty, of course, is not always polite and intellectual. The new song “Let’s Call It Love” begins with a throbbing, low-pitched guitar riff aimed between the knees and waist. Soon Tucker delivers an older woman’s blunt, taunting challenge to a lover, “A woman is not a girl/ I could show you a thing or two . . . / Hit the floor, honey, let’s battle it out.” That wrestling match is echoed in Tucker’s yelping squawks, Brownstein’s thick slabs of noisy guitar, and Weiss’ hammering drums, as if Sleater-Kinney were imitating Heart imitating Led Zeppelin.

Neither of those latter bands, though, were willing to be skeptical of the sex they were pursuing. Sleater-Kinney constantly questions the “bloody match” it desires. “Let’s call it love,” Tucker declares, but she knows full well that her lust only occasionally coincides with the love she needs just as desperately. That paradox erupts into a Brownstein guitar solo, as full of feedback and distortion as a Sonic Youth song; it goes on for more than five minutes before segueing into the album’s final song, “Night Light.” The noise subsides, and Tucker asks, “How do you do it [in] this bitter and bloody world/ keep it together and shine for your family?”

“Getting older, you hopefully get a little more wisdom, a little more perspective,” Tucker says. “You don’t always have to write about yourself. I’m trying to sing in different voices so I can be different characters in different songs.”

Different characters lurk everywhere in The Woods. “The Fox” casts modern relationships as a childlike fable about a predatory fox and an ambivalent duck. “Jumpers” describes a San Francisco woman so lost in literal and psychic fog that she takes a taxi out to the Golden Gate Bridge where her “falling shape will draw a line between the blue of sea and sky.” The song ends before she gets out of the taxi, leaving the outcome uncertain.

“Wilderness” describes a pair of newlyweds in a town very much like Sleater-Kinney’s current home base, Portland, Ore., “a city where hippies run wild/ everything’s white, now so are the smiles.” The couple is soon quarreling despite the amiable environment, and in the last verse the narrator realizes that the whole nation is quarreling. The singer (Brownstein this time) hollers, “A family feud, the Red and the Blue now . . . all our little wishes have run dry.”

“Here on the West Coast, there’s a progressive bubble where people ride their bikes to work, vote Democratic, and believe that Bush couldn’t possibly be re-elected,” Tucker explains. “When he was re-elected, that bubble burst.

“But rather than say it like that, Carrie told a story about our people, and then related it to the larger picture,” she continues. “That’s a great way to tell a story, to look at a picture of our family and then see how that picture fits in the larger society. I think people can relate a lot better to a political song if it’s a small, human story threaded within a larger picture of our country and where it’s headed.”

We are all likely to see ourselves in these 10 stories about shoppers and suicides, students and parents, seducers and musicians. In the howling guitars, we are likely to hear the irresistible force of our wants colliding with the immovable object of the world. We are likely to realize that those desires and frustrations are not limited to hipsters of a certain age and geography. In that sense, Sleater-Kinney has made its most political, most passionate album ever.

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