Sleater-Kinney

The Woods

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Far from the retreat implied in its title, The Woods is another passionate statement from Sleater-Kinney, equally inspired by the call-to-arms of their previous album, One Beat, and the give-and-take of their live sets, particularly their supporting slot on Pearl Jam's 2003 tour. Throughout their career, the band has found ways to refine and elaborate on the fiery spirit that makes them so distinctive without diminishing it. The Woods is no exception -- it may be Sleater-Kinney's most mature and experimental album to date, but unlike most mature and experimental albums released by bands entering their second decade, it doesn't forget to rock like a beast. The album's opening salvo, "The Fox," is shockingly feral, an onslaught of heavy, angry, spiralling guitars, ridiculously loud drums, and Corin Tucker's inimitable, love-them-or-hate-them vocals. It's so crushingly dense that it's hard to believe it came from Dave Fridmann's studio; reportedly, The Woods' sessions were challenging for band and producer alike, but from the results, it's clear that they pushed each other to make some of the best work of both of their careers. Though it may be hard to believe, at first, that this is a Fridmann-produced album, his contributions become a little clearer on tracks like the dysfunctional domesticity of "Wilderness," which has the depth and spaciousness usually associated with his work. However, it's easy enough to hear that The Woods is quintessential Sleater-Kinney. This may be the band's most self-assured sounding work yet -- their music has never lacked confidence and daring, but now they sound downright swaggering: "What's Mine Is Yours" is a subversive nod to Led Zeppelin and also captures Sleater-Kinney's own formidable power as a live act. Tucker's voice and viewpoints are as thoughtful and fierce as ever, and as usual, she's even better when aided and abetted by Carrie Brownstein's harmonies, as on "Jumpers." Capturing both the deeply depressing and liberating sides of suicide, the song moves from moody almost-pop to an intense but still melodic assault; unlike so many bands, Sleater-Kinney can go back and forth between several ideas within one song and never sound forced or muddled. A martial feeling runs through The Woods, but unlike the more overtly political One Beat, dissent is a more of an overall state of mind here. The more literal songs falter a bit, but "Modern Girl" is saved by its sharp lyrics ("I took my money and bought a donut/The hole's the size of the entire world"), while Tucker and Brownstein's dueling vocals and Janet Weiss' huge drums elevate "Entertain" above its easy targets of retro rock and reality TV. However, the songs about floundering or complicated relationships draw blood: "Rollercoaster," an extended food and fairground metaphor for an up-and-down long-term relationship with tough-girl backing vocals and an insistent cowbell driving it along, is as insightful as it is fun and witty. The unrepentantly sexy "Let's Call It Love" is another standout, comparing love to a boxing match (complete with bells ringing off the rounds) and a game of poker. At 11 minutes long, the song might be indulgent (especially by Sleater-Kinney's usually economic standards), but its ebbs and flows and well-earned guitar solos underscore the feeling that the band made The Woods for nobody but themselves. It flows seamlessly into "Night Light," an equally spooky and hopeful song that offers promise, but no easy answers -- a fitting end to an album that often feels more engaged in struggle than the outcome of it. One thing is clear, though: Sleater-Kinney remain true to their ideals, and after all this time, they still find smart, gripping ways of articulating them.

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