forest for the trees
We caught Sleater-Kinney at the Warfield last night. The show reaffirmed both my opinion that they're one of the best bands out there, and my ambivalence about the new record.
When The Woods works, it really works. The opener "The Fox" is a great vicious slab of rock, with Corin Tucker's cry of "Land ho!" being one of the most thrilling moments the band has ever caught on tape; "Entertain" and "Rollercoaster" have great riffs; "Jumpers" is driving and affecting, with great lyrics, and is marred only by a chorus that never quite takes off the way it wants to. But there's a lot of material on the record that I can't get into, even after several listens; it's abrasive without being energizing. The difference between a great rock song and a great pop song has more to do with sonic texture than structurea hook is still a hook, even if it's so drawn-out that it takes several listens to grasp (Radiohead) or if it makes deliberate use of monotony (Gang of Four). With All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney brought pop to the forefront of their songwriting, and even the harshest moments on One Beat were built invitingly enough to carry you along after a couple of listens. On The Woods, the band only gets there about half the time.
Some corners of the music press are calling this album a great leap forward for them, and perhaps for rock in general. But the departure has little to do with songcraft and everything to do with production. The best thing about Sleater-Kinney is the distinctive musical vocabulary they've developed over their last few albums, consisting of clipped and disjunct guitar lines over shifting, oddly staggered beats; it has proven to span a large expressive range while remaining very much their own. The Woods sticks with this style, but this time around the band and producer have decided to process it far more overtly. The first thing you notice on popping the disc in the player is how noisy the sound isnot loud, but noisy. It's not layers of shrieking guitars à la Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine, nor is it the sort of glorious, painstakingly shaped static that for a while managed to mask Trent Reznor's deficiencies as a songwriter. It sounds more like everythingguitars, drums, voiceis getting fed through the same distortion filter. Sometimes this approach fits the material marvelously, as with "The Fox," but what works for one song is harder to sustain throughout an album. On the weaker songs the added harshness is simply off-putting, and occasionally, as on the gently satirical pop of "Modern Girl," it just sounds out of place.
The record's key departure in terms of song structure, as all the reviews have noticed, is the seven-minute guitar solo that closes out "Let's Call It Love." It's hard to know what to make of this, since the extended guitar solo has such a troubled history in rock anyway. The extravagant bluesy solos of the sixties had a pretty definite expiration date, and have long since devolved into Jeff Beck. Most seventies prog instrumentals (excepting weird outliers like Can, who were more of a jazz band anyway) cultivated virtuosity at the price of becoming pretentious and, far worse, deathly boring. It's very rare that a rock musician can match the both the intelligence and the passion of a great jazz soloist for any length of time, because note for note, the jazz player always has the better chops. The most successful soloists in recent rock are people like Thurston Moore, Jonny Greenwood and Graham Coxon, who understand that their kind of music is largely about sonic texture, and that the anatomy of the electric guitar makes its texture uniquely pliable. Carrie Brownstein is a fine guitaristshe did a knock-down job last nightbut on the album, her solo is never allowed to break out of the sandpapery patina of noise that coats the whole record, and it just can't do the work that it should over a seven-minute span. It doesn't help that "Let's Call It Love" is one of those pounding numbers without a sharp enough hook that never quite gets off the ground.
I've spent so much time dwelling on what doesn't work in The Woods only because there's also much that does, and because the strength of the band's back catalog prohibits any easy dismissal of new efforts. The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, and One Beat are three records that, if not perfect, have staked out singular and important territory in contemporary rock. Sleater-Kinney's inventiveness as songwriters and instrumentalists, combined with the strength of their personae as rock stars, has resulted in music that is very smart and very passionatewhich combination doesn't happen nearly often enough. Here's hoping it holds out.