Friday, July 15, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: SETTIN' THE WOODS ON FIRE

A version of this appeared in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 15, 2005


Sleater-Kinney has done it again. With their new album The Woods, This roaring, all-girl, Pacific Northwest trio shows how screaming guitar rock can still have brains, soul and relevance.

In many ways it’s too bad that this group seems destined to never rise above "critics’ darling" status. They keep making wonderful records, critics, including me, and enlightened fans drool and heap praise on them -- and the general public ignores them in favor of vastly inferior dribble.

But, as Mr. Sinatra said, "That’s life."

Believe it or not, Sleater-Kinney has been around now for a whole decade. Their self-titled debut was released in 1995, at the tail-end of the Riot Grrrl scare.

S-K quickly transcended the bonds of the basic girl-punk sound. They kept the same basic arrangement -- the two guitar attack of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, Tucker’s hopped-up Banshee wail (which I think is the band‘s greatest weapon). And no bass. (Drummer Janet Weiss -- who’s starting to remind me a lot of Mitch Mitchell of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience -- came to the band in the late ‘90s.) But they’ve been growing and evolving through the years without losing their original frantic energy.

The Woods is a logical progression for S-K. In their previous albums their songs rarely if ever hit the four-minute mark. Here, more than half the songs are that long. And one of them -- "Let’s Call it Love" -- is a savage 11-minute frenzy that brings back memories of Steppenwolf‘s "Magic Carpet Ride," The Count Five’s "Psychotic Reaction" and Patti Smith’s "Radio Ethiopia."

Amazingly, The Woods is produced by Dave Fridmann. He’s a member of Mercury Rev and he’s produced albums for that band as well as for The Flaming Lips. In recent years both those bands, thanks largely to Fridmann, have become known for a lush, soundtracky -- some would argue even symphonic -- ambiance. But there’s little if anything on this album to suggest Fridmann’s signature sonic sweetness.

The album starts out with a strange little psycho-sexual Aesop-like fable called "The Fox." The title character notices the birth of a baby duck and bellows (well, at least Tucker bellows) "Land Ho!" This description might sound like a sweet little animal tale (indeed the innocent little duck escapes the wiley fox), but with the blast of feedback that opens the song, the harsh chords and Weiss’ machine-gun drums, nobody will mistake this for a Raffi song.

Love relationships seems to be the main focus of this album.

"What‘s Mine is Yours" starts out bouncy and sexy, with Tucker inviting a lover to "rest your head on this heart of mine." The music builds up to an explosive climax as Tucker wails in a combination of dread and ecstasy. Then, right in the middle of the song there’s a guitar feedback freakout that melds into a grating electric bluesy stomp.

"Wilderness" is about a couple that "Said `I do in the month of May/ Said ’I don’t’ the very next day."

But by the end of the song, the relationship between "Kenny and Linda" seems to be a metaphor for a politically divided country: "A family fued/ The Red and the Blue now/ It’s Truth against Truth/ I’ll see you in hell, I don’t mind." This is a reversal of the song "Faraway" on their last album One Beat, which started out as a harrowing account of watching September 11 unfold on television, but then turns those events into a metaphor of the personal: "Why can’t I get along with you?"

Then on "Night Light," which closes the album, the lyrics -- and the foreboding roar of the music, speak of a nightmarish real world, in which your only source of strength is in your loved ones. "How do you do it /This bitter and bloody world/Keep it together and shine for your family …"

The song that stands out for its strangeness here is "Modern Girl." With relatively soft guitars and a sweet harmonica, the initial lyrics sung by Brownstein, remind me of some long-lost sitcom theme, somewhere between The Partridge Family and The Facts of Life: "My baby loves me/I’m so happy/Happiness makes me a modern girl … My whole life/was like a picture/ on a sunny day …"

Of course there’s a sinister undercurrent here. By the last verse, the drums come in and it’s "anger" that makes her a modern girl . Her money won’t buy nothing’ and she’s sick of the "Brave New World."

Besides these fine new songs, one thing I like about The Woods is that includes a DVD of the band performing live. Alas, it’s only four songs, but watching Sleater-Kinney in action makes you appreciate them even more.

Also Recommended:
*Before the Poison
by Marianne Faithful. It’s not hard to imagine Marianne Faithful as Sleater-Kinney’s mom. Faithful doesn’t really sound like S-K -- certainly her weathered heroin-and-cigarette-damaged voiced couldn’t handle a fraction of Tucker’s crazy wails, though I bet Sleater could do a powerful version of Faithfull’s insane tirade of sexual betrayal "Why d’ya Do It?"

On her latest album, released early this year, Faithful teams up with a couple of other rockers who could pass as her spiritual children -- P.J. Harvey and Nick Cave. Echoes of Faithful’s 1979 "comeback" album Broken English can certainly be heard in the works of Harvey and Cave.

Harvey wrote or co-wrote five of the 10 songs here, while Cave co-wrote three songs with Faithful, including the glorious screechy rocker "Desperanto."

While Faithful’s more morose songs — like "Crazy Love" and Harvey’s "In the Factory" — can be addictive, so to speak, I wish more of Before the Poison rocked like "Deperanto" and Harvey’s "My Friends Have."

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