With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release (or in this case, the label's anniversary). In coordination with our Sub Pop 30 Count-Up, KEXP writer Matthew Howland reflects on Sleater-Kinney's 2005 album, The Woods.
On the cover of Sleater-Kinney's 2005 album The Woods, curtains withdraw across a stage, three trees cemented in a triangle formation. Sleater-Kinney’s name is partially cut off, and the album title does not appear. The CD is adorned with an interpretive tree stump: the rings, when counted, reveal the tree's age at its time of death. In retrospect, this gives The Woods a marked sense of foreboding. A photograph inside the album package displays the three band members blurred, standing at night in a forest. They stare as if caught by the camera. These glimpses offer multiple views of the band and address their contradictions: at this point in their career, Sleater-Kinney had entered the woods, as it were. They had signed to a new label – The Woods was their first LP released on Sub Pop – and successfully reached a larger audience. Sleater-Kinney stands alone as the most successful all-female punk group, stuck with the ridiculous expectations of representing a gender with their music. At the same time, they are treated as token rock femmes by many rock publications, including Rolling Stone. All this is addressed with the image of a forest, of aged rock institutions, of the importance of new growth, even though the trees all draw upon the same fundamental shape. An original intention of punk was to destroy the myth of the rock star, in the process becoming a more democratic form of music. Of course, punk has inevitably become rot with its own pantheon of stars and martyrs, subject to a process of mythology that comes with the passing of time. Sleater-Kinney has lived through the grunge movement, the inception and collapse of 'riot grrrl,' two separate wars in Iraq, a number of global disasters, and the repeated death of their close friends. In the wake of catastrophe, the myth of the rock star can seem quaint, even charming by comparison. And yet Sleater-Kinney continued, joined a label with more resources and exposure, and teamed with producer Dave Fridmann, best known for work with The Flaming Lips. The Woods is a product of aging, celebration, and mourning, but it strips away accumulated pain with decibels.
Formed in Olympia, WA in 1994, Sleater-Kinney started as the shared project of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, who soon enlisted drummer Lora MacFarlane. Both Tucker and Brownstein had already been in riot grrrl-era feminist punk groups, respectively Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17. Janet Weiss took over on drums following MarFarlane’s 1996 departure, which brought Sleater-Kinney to a new level of force, precision, and drive. Five albums were recorded with this line-up prior to Sleater-Kinney’s indefinite hiatus in 2006, including 1997’s remarkable Dig Me Out. With 1999’s undervalued The Hot Rock, Sleater-Kinney began to clean up their sound, which resulted in claims that they were abandoning their punk roots in order to appeal to a broader audience. This tension between chaotic punk and comparatively subdued pop (ala cited influence The Go-Betweens) continued through the band’s subsequent two albums. Though Sleater-Kinney's stature and fanbase had indeed grown substantially by 2005, The Woods significantly altered their sound, bringing in elements of hard rock, though a sense of punk still prevailed. Far from passively embracing the rock templates of decades past, The Woods unflinchingly comments on the music industry, mass culture, and gendered power dynamics, but also allows the listener to revel in the joy of hearing dynamic rock played loud. Sleater-Kinney has its cake, eats it too, and delivers a beautiful finale to the first segment of their career.
The lyrics on The Woods are an interrogation of the rock tropes and traditions that Sleater-Kinney newly embody, and also critique codes of consumerism, femininity, the expectations of patriarchy, and rock persona. This is best displayed by three tracks, "The Fox," "Modern Girl," and “Entertain.” "The Fox" kicks off The Woods with a strangled squall of feedback which slams into a massive wall of sound, guitars overdriven past a point of distortion. Corin Tucker's voice enters during a break in squalor, singing of an encounter between a duck and predatorial fox. The fox lures the duck forward with a bursting "Land ho!" from Tucker, her voice veering upward into a trilling scream. He offers coyly, "I could show you some shiny tricks... come along we'll get our kicks," before the duck asks "Oh Fox! Is this love?..." the question extending outward into a void of guitar. Though the duck returns to its pond — “no looking back” — the parable complete, the music offers no comfort or resolution. It instead merely comes to a stop, descending back into a swamp of feedback. There is a marked dissonance between the fairy tale, reminiscent of the work of Angela Carter, and the surrounding music, which presses against the lines between punk and hard rock. The thematic content, of skewed power relationships that mirror common stories from the music industry, literature, and everyday life, is not new territory for Sleater-Kinney. However, the twin poles of "The Fox" make it a singular entry in the band's catalog. "The Fox" is a mauled fable, unconcerned with the boundaries of genre, though it thoroughly subverts them with extremities of apparent naivete and tone.
"Modern Girl" is a raging critique of femininity and consumer culture, and remains the Woods track with the largest cultural impact. Sung by Carrie Brownstein in a knowing sneer, "Modern Girl" has been treated as a disaffected anthem for young women stuck in cycles of passive consumerism and submission. Brownstein’s portrayal comes after several waves of feminism and femme-centric social movements that have become partially rooted in political legislature. "Modern Girl" offers a portrait of life after freedom has purportedly been achieved. However, this liberation is merely the freedom to spend and blindly participate in the market economy. The musical accompaniment to Brownstein's critique is easily the quietest on The Woods, although it crackles with distortion and static. Her voice starts accompanied by two gentle electric guitars like an urban pastoral, Brownstein singing of her baby's love and spending routine is broken up with the statement, "happiness makes me a modern girl." Verses are divided by the refrain "my whole life was like a picture of a sunny day," the past tense foretelling the sonic breakdown soon to occur. As the verses go on, joined by distorted harmonica, "happiness" shifts to "hunger" and subsequently "anger," the narrator yelling out "I took my money/ I couldn't buy nothin'/ I'm so sick of this brave new world." Static'ed drums from Weiss kick in for a moment, before abruptly stopping, Brownstein and Tucker's buried voices joining to sing a last, futile refrain. Some of the power of "Modern Girl” comes from the urge to sing along in spite of knowing the fate of Brownstein's pained, fragmented first person. This remains striking after many repetitions of the song. In addition, the repeated structure in "hunger makes me a modern girl" and "anger makes me a modern girl" offer a portrait of a femme musician's struggle to be heard or respected in the independent music landscape. To the credit of the group, "Modern Girl" hints at significantly more than is outright said. This explains its ability to enthrall even while it cuts away at the expectations and supposed victories that can characterize a modern female experience.
The sonic flip-side to "Modern Girl," "Entertain" is a bursting political anthem that rails against a consumption-driven music economy. Built on a pounding, repetitive Janet Weiss drum part, the verses of "Entertain" are acerbically spat by Carrie Brownstein, who once again delivers an articulate tirade against blind consumerism and the impacts of mass media. Similar to the best work of Gang of Four, Brownstein's first verse uses contradictory language around the conceit of entertainment, as if intending to voice the conflicted experience of a crossover punk artist who must reckon with wider acceptance. The theme of rampant manipulation from media outlets recurs in both Brownstein and Tucker's vocal parts, Tucker's fierce refrain consisting of "if your art is done/ Johnny get your gun/ join the rank and file/ on your TV dial." These words conjure images of fascism, nationalism, and the ongoing wars in the Middle East, justified through government rhetoric and television broadcasts. Brownstein kicks straight into her second verse with the lines "you come around looking 1984/ you're such a bore, 1984/ nostalgia, you're using it like a whore/ it's better than before." This passage directly addresses Boilen's criticism by acknowledging the nostalgia pervasive in rock criticism and the production of contemporary music – and Sleater-Kinney’s own participation in it. Brownstein’s lyrics also bring in images of gendered violence, which continue to appear throughout the track. After "you're using it like a whore," comes "where is the 'fuck you'?/ where's the black and blue?" and the powerful "all you want is entertainment/ rip me open it's free." The supposed violence and rebellion of punk lose a level of authenticity once it enters into a marketplace with the ability to sell and market a distorted image of the same rebellion. This not only reduces the power of one's art or music but has a deeply violent impact on the body of a performer. “Rip me open it’s free,” also recalls the forced sexualization of femme performers, who are expected to conform to pre-existing categories of femininity. The theme of brutality continues through the latter part of "Entertain," Carrie shouting "if you wanna take a shot at me, get in line," and "we can drown in mediocrity, it feels sublime." The brilliance in the presentation of these messages comes from both the band's utter conviction and ability to convey the violence hidden in the sheer blandness of everyday entertainment. Though drowning in mediocrity feels momentarily ecstatic, Sleater-Kinney offer images of revolt against cheap thrills, which is still a notably punk attitude in an age of constant stimulation.
Thirteen years after The Woods, Sleater-Kinney has since reformed, released an acclaimed comeback record, and is reportedly at work on a new album. In part due to the elevated profile of Carrie Brownstein, who stars in the popular Portlandia series, Sleater-Kinney has an ever-expanding and global audience, and a position at the top of an indie rock hierarchy. The band's live shows have given a new generation the opportunity to become inspired by the creativity and power of the group. Upon revisiting their purportedly final album in the wake of the band's ongoing success, The Woods' built-in contradictions and thematic undercurrents remain relevant, confrontational, self-lacerating and, yes, occasionally puzzling. The Woods feels engineered to be Sleater-Kinney's final album – it comes as a rapid explosion, a burst of energy that tears away at their very core. While it is misguided to decry the return of Sleater-Kinney for altering the band's chronology or mythology, it is also worth questioning whether the group now qualifies as an institution. Sleater-Kinney is now thoroughly canonized in popular rock journalism, even while their music calls for the destruction and irrelevancy of canons altogether. Much of the material on The Woods begs for immolation while also thoroughly satisfying as rock music, the lyrical turmoil part of its appeal as sustaining punk. One should not begrudge Sleater-Kinney for still existing, but the tension and pain of The Woods suffer knowing the band would embark on a reunion tour. The band is a vital presence in the independent music landscape and modern political climate, even while they must continue to rail against their own existence.
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