Through The Woods 

Sleater-Kinney's trek from riot grrls to power trio

Words like "raw," "explosive" or even "heavy" were rarely used to describe the sound of latter-day Northwest riot grrls Sleater-Kinney prior to the release of their seventh album, The Woods. Instead, more appropriate terms were "angular," "hooky," and on its edgier days, perhaps "gritty."

But The Woods bursts into being with a screeching feedback followed by a thick and chugging guitar riff - the type that causes you to dial down the volume on your iPod when you call it up. The album mixes the Who's bombast, Cream's musicianship and Zeppelin's frenetic pacing. It's a far cry from the serrated pop punk that the Sleater-Kinney girls mined for their six previous outings.

After jumping from longtime label Kill Rock Stars to venerable Seattle indie Sub Pop in November, the ladies debuted their sound this past New Year's Eve at Madison Square Garden. Fans expecting a night of reminiscing to a soundtrack of Sleater-Kinney favorites were instead confronted with amps-to-11 intensity.

"Part of our plan was to do something that was different and was unexpected, so that people weren't just like, 'Oh yeah, Sleater-Kinney sound like this,'" says singer/guitarist Corin Tucker. "We wanted to do something different in terms of a label, something different in terms of a sound, and something different in terms of the songwriting."

Really the seeds of change were sown back in 2002, during the recording of the band's last record, One Beat. The album saw the band's previous lean and terse formula charged with weightier lyrics culled both from 9/11 and the premature birth of Tucker's first child. To support the heft of her message, Tucker's voice compensated by attempting registers, shrieks and screams that she hadn't neared on previous recordings. While drummer Janet Weiss' stutter-drumming has always been the sound's most robust element, over the course of the last two records, both Tucker's and guitarist Carrie Brownstein's contributions have bulked up in a seemingly steroid-aided, abbreviated time span.

"I think we were pushing on One Beat really hard to do different stuff, but I think we just kind of went further on this record and almost kind of stepped outside of ourselves to do something totally new," says Tucker. "And definitely we worked harder on the music this time to do something really different. And it's stuff that's out of our skill level and almost out of our range."

To aid in transcending themselves, the band enlisted the help of Dave Fridmann, an original member of U.K. dream rockers Mercury Rev and producer for the Flaming Lips. Fridmann whisked the ladies away to an upstate New York studio where over the course of two two-and-a-half week sessions, the nine-and-a-half tracks that the band brought in became the 10 songs that make up The Woods. Fridmann made it clear that the record would bear his indelible stamp, letting his employers know early on that he wasn't interested in re-creating their past. He made no secret of the fact that he thought the band's previous records all sounded the same.

"It was a little bit daunting stepping into a situation with someone that's right off the bat critical of our records," says Tucker. "But also, at this point in the band's maturity, I think we were totally ready for that challenge."

Fridmann sandblasted away the precious sheen of Sleater-Kinney's previous work and replaced it with a raw, more guttural and generally bigger sound. The collaboration was strenuous for the members of Sleater-Kinney, especially considering that they had no idea what they would come up with at the end.

What the ladies finished with was a testament to a skill level they didn't know they had, especially in the performance of Brownstein, who not only advances her guitar prowess but also assumes a more active and confrontational role vocally. The might of the renewed and improved Sleater-Kinney is most easily evidenced on the suite made up of "Let's Call It Love" and "Night Light," a nearly 15-minute psychedelic freak-out full of lead-footed bass drum festooned with constant fills, Seattle-sludge guitar that calls out like a plugged boat whistle, and the mighty voice of Tucker fighting for attention among all the clamor and din.

Tucker recalls hearing the rough cut of the track for the first time, and realizing that the Sleater-Kinney of old had officially been reborn as a band with no limits.

"I just started crying," she says. "We worked really hard to push our musicianship. I felt really accomplished at that moment."


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