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The Ross Who Knew Too Much

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Into, and out of, "The Woods"

I knew it was coming, but it still put a stupidly massive smile on my face when, during the encore of Wednesday night's Sleater-Kinney show at First Avenue, Corin Tucker growled the line "Mother, tell your children not to walk my way."

Yup, Sleater-Kinney played a Danzig cover. And it wasn't necessarily ironic.

Seven albums into a career that's earned them the sort of frothy critical acclaim bands would kill for (even if they would never, ever admit it) -- "America's Best Rock Band," anyone? -- the Pacific Northwest trio have hit an all-time creative high with "The Woods."

Easily one of the year's best discs (no matter what the next six months might bring), "The Woods" is a thrilling departure that sees the onetime riot grrrls fully embracing -- and deliciously subverting -- butt rock at its most macho. It wasn't that long ago that the three women of Sleater-Kinney were masters of "learning rock" who were far more apt to lecture their audience than, you know, kick out the jams.

Wednesday night, the band played pretty much all of "The Woods" and, if it's possible, made it even more ferocious in the process. "The Fox" and "Wilderness" have blossomed into furious rock beasts and "Rollercoaster," well, how did I miss that song's potential the thousand or so times I've spun the CD(?)

In this new context of Sleater-Kinney as a 2005 version of Cream (or the Jimi Hendrix Experience), the Danzig cover makes a whole lot of sense. And, despite this new musical muscle, Sleater-Kinney remain wholly committed to the indie ideals that have brought them this far. "The Woods" is their first album for Sub Pop (a large "independent" label that's partially owned by Warner Bros., but still operated with a true maverick spirit and budget) but there's not even a whiff of commercial whoredom here. In fact, sonically speaking, the band's last effort -- 2002's "One Beat" -- is far more in tune with what's selling as far as contemporary alt-rock bands go. And if it were released today, on a major label with a fat promotional budget, that disc would likely sell a half-million copies by the fall. (As great as "The Woods" is, it feels far too abstract for the mainstream -- although, I suppose, the Current's rabid support of the disc is introducing it to a wider-ranging audience here in the Cities.)

It's also refreshing to see Sleater-Kinney continue to eschew sexuality as a selling point (unlike, say, the Donnas). Corin looks every bit the curvy punk-rock mom she is; the rail-thin Carrie could be mistaken for a teenage boy from a '70s sitcom; and Janet's diamond earrings and cocktail dress are utterly incongruent with her highly aggressive, Bonham-like drumming. Yes, this is a band consisting of three women (and no bass guitarist) but now, more than ever, that fact is beside the point. Sleater-Kinney have become a gender-transcendent rock band that lives and breathes and believes every last squeal, beat and bleat. (Compare them, if you will, to this tired ensemble, led by a longtime big-talking feminist who issues her fiery manifestos from a mansion she shares with a millionaire Beastie Boy and who released her latest warmed-over punk/dance/rock disc under the auspices of one of the world's largest entertainment conglomerates).

Am I gushing? I suppose so. But it warms the corners of my shriveled, cynical heart to see a band succeed on so many levels without compromise and to rock harder and more convincingly than nearly anyone else out there -- man, woman or child.


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