Oh Little Light

Sleater-Kinney: How do you do it?

Photo by John ClarkSleater-Kinney has gone heavy metal and made their best record. That might be all you need to know. But if the best records were only that simple, they wouldn't last very long. And so TheWoodsis Sleater-Kinney's best because it opens so wide—it's an album that spans 10 years as they fold and snap into the moment when a band renews itself. On the cover is a set of curtains drawing back across a stage to show that TheWoodsis Sleater-Kinney finally unveiled, the album that was hidden inside all their other albums.

This was the most difficult release for them to make yet, they said, and maybe not just because of the technical conditions (their new producer Dave Fridmann said right off he wasn't exactly an S-K fan, and they moved from their longtime label Kill Rock Stars to Sub Pop). Instead, Sleater-Kinney—guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, plus drummer Janet Weiss—had to have recognized that a moment had come, that the luxury of longevity demands the responsibility of growth. Pennywise and Bad Religion and Social Distortion all pay the bills, but how do they sleep at night? Dreamlessly, guaranteed. "We definitely tried to break free this time, to shake our heads wildly with our eyes closed," said Weiss. "And when it's raining and I'm sitting on the porch with my headphones on, it seems like we did."

And I don't know how. All I can do is assess the result: they have captured again the sound of rock & roll but have finally, consistently and completely inherited its full and lasting life. The openness on TheWoodsis literal in many instances: at 2:22 on "What's Mine Is Yours," when the bottom of the song drops into reverb and space, it's the first and most drastic announcement that TheWoodsis something different. But it's openness in metaphor that supplies the gravity that gives TheWoodsits weight. Until now, Sleater-Kinney were contained by those who came before. Now they make the reversal, and TheWoodsopens wide enough to contain everything inside, a record that exists as an equal and not an apprentice to: Blue Cheer, Wipers, Sonics, MC5, X, Patti Smith, Television, Ramones, the bands in the class of '92 like Team Dresch and Bikini Kill, and who else? So much energy and history in tides around this band. It took so long for them to catch the motive and momentum of its flow, but they sustained it completely as they transfused it into this album.

Exactly half the songs are dialogues between two people. The "you" songs: "Sit down, honey, let's kill some time/Rest your head on this heart of mine," with the lyrics that read as one side of a conversation. The other half have no one (or a faceless everyone) to listen: call-up songs like "Entertain" ("The lines are drawn/Whose side are you on?") or slow and lonely songs like "Modern Girl," whose "whole life was like a picture of a sunny day," who hums a country trill into a harmonica until the drums crack her song in two. But TheWoodsitself shows no split; it has a density of purpose Sleater-Kinney has never had before. For all the newly explored dynamics—producer Fridmann helped punch air holes in Sleater-Kinney's now fearsomely thick double-guitars; back to 2:22 on "What's Mine" if you wanna hear—there is a fierce and almost monolithic sense of identity on this album, a force that holds each song to the next on a molecular level. As in the real woods, the roots below tangle together because they seek the same source.

Which is . . . life, I'd say: the total translation of experience; the introduction into a piece of art of a representation of personality and intent and humanity so complete and alive that you could play a song from a record and feel as if someone was in the room with you. Pop culture, as a man once said, means millions of people go to sleep each night feeling less alone. Sleater-Kinney has been doing that for years; there are old tapes with "Good Things" and someone else's handwriting on the label in my closets right now. With TheWoods, they will do it for new people, and a lot of new people, and do it again in a new way for the people who would already feel alone without them. That gives them their space in history. And that gives them TheWoods,which climaxes in the 11-minute "Let's Call It Love," a raw and exhausting half-instrumental improvisation (something without recorded Sleater-Kinney precedent) that relaxes into the last song, "Night Light," without even a pause.

From frenzy into pulse into echo-wet single-string lines, and so into TheWoods' very last minutes: this is a pinpoint finale, a last unexpected twist to an album itself unexpected, and "Night Light" is an epilogue to an epic. The last set of lyrics could be the listener asking something of the band, or the band asking something of itself. It's the moment for those curtains to close, with a solemn stanza that explains everything that's happened and everything that comes next: "Oh little beam/Splitting the fog and the dirt in between/Oh simplify/Like a problem you try to work out in your mind/I would almost have to ask you/It's clumsy when said/So give me a spark I can look for instead."

SLEATER-KINNEY WITH MARY TIMONY AND FIELDING AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. 2ND ST., POMONA; WWW.THEGLASSHOUSE.US. TUES., 7:30 PM. $15. ALL AGES. THE WOODS IS OUT NOW ON SUB POP; WWW.SUBPOP.COM.

 
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