In Praise of Sleater-Kinney’s “The Woods”

Abandoning the old Rate My CD’s project earlier this year gave me freedom to listen to my music whenever the hell I wanted. Not having to listen to one old blues album after another, dreaming of the day I’d make it to my tiny Hip-Hop collection, was a positive pleasure. Now I can actually just enjoy my music. Which Paradoxically, puts me in the mood to write about it.

The kids today don’t remember this, but the early-aughties (did we really use that term? We did. Is there a better one? No.) enjoyed a marvelous explosion of old-school treble-bleeding rock n’roll, which went under the name of “garage punk”. A lot of it was Millenials dressing up in Boomer or Gen-X costumes, but not all of it (Jack White, who’s a year older than I am, is comfortably Gen-X). But while the rising tide didn’t lift all boats (what Spin said about the Jon Spencer Blues Explotion in 2002 has not been forgotten, nor forgiven), some bands were able to climb aboard as the Ark took off. One of them was Sleater-Kinney.

I was already a fan of this crew, just from jumping aboard the love train for Dig Me Out, which I got just because I liked the album cover. It’s a gold-plated rock classic, something they were minting relatively few of in 1997, and almost everyone agrees on this today.

Yes, this is an homage to The Kink Kontroversey

The album delivers what it promises: a gutbucket blast of screeching guitar (there’s even a song called “Words and Guitar”) that keeps it simple and tight. You don’t, and shouldn’t, analyze these tunes on any other level. There’s no intent behind them beyond playing Russian Roulette with your car speakers and hoping you lose (and that metaphor doesn’t even make sense). I like it much better than other albums of theirs such as 200o’s, All Hands On the Bad One.

The Woods, however, is better.

Ever have that wonderful feeling of getting into an album you’ve had forever but never really really sunk into. I’ve been doing that this week. Usually I have three CD’s in rotation in the car for driving (there are six, and the wife gets the other three slots. This is the arrangement we have in both cars). These change and vary according to my mood. I’ve been using that space for music I was officially reviewing for the Every Damn CD project, but now that I no longer have to do that, I’ve embraced eclecticism. Currently The Woods is in the number 2 slot, in between Illmatic and Midnight Boom by the Kills. Nas is what he is, i.e. that nexus of gangsta rap and jazz-hop that was chemically engineered to move units in 1994. Which is to say, it’s easier to listen to if you don’t pay attention to anything he’s saying. Which has always been the problem I’ve had with hiphop. But that’s another story.

Midnight Boom is one of my personal favorites, a grumbly blend of electronics and skiffle-punk, a nicotine-patch for the soul. But as the week has gone on, The Woods has been winning in the “giving me an itch to listen” sweepstakes. I seem to keep wanting more. Considering I grabbed it used at the mall an unknown number of years ago, that’s saying something.

I’ve always been a sucker for the no-bass approach, and Sleater-Kinney gets how to do that: have two guitars, and let them fight it out like cats in an alley, slashing at each other, while the drums sound like garbage cans being hit by a drunk. It’s raw and its ragged, which has always been S-K’s trademark, as has the almost-yodeled lyrics. Bleeding Edge is the aesthetic idea, hell-for-leather. Leave nothing on the field. This album adds to that a heavier, more-distorted sound, drawing reference from old-school hard-rock and classic metal. So this one just hits you harder, from opener “the Fox” on, pausing only at “Modern Girl” to take a gentle melodic breath.

“Let’s Call it Love” is the ambitious moment, 11 minutes of rolling thunder that builds which each iteration. When a man needs to headbang while he commutes, theres’ been nothing better. It got the usual critical acclaim from the usual suspects back in 2005, but as the group went on hiatus not long after, it’s never been built up as the worthy contributor to the tradition of Rock that it truly is. The full album is on YouTube below. RIP your ears, as the kids say.