SLEATER-KINNEY with DEAD MEADOW at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Saturday (June 18). $20. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Sleater-Kinney's masterful new disc, The Woods, is a trippy psyched-out rock barrage guaranteed to cause nightmares - or, at the very least, hallucinations.
You can tell from the squall of feedback that opens lead track the Fox, prefacing creepy-good lyrics about a sly fox who gets outwitted by a duck. Don't snicker - it's seriously scary, especially when you factor in co-shouter Corin Tucker's frantic bleat, which weaves around dissonant guitar skronks to make you feel like you're hanging out during storytime with an evil librarian.
Today, though, there's no evil librarian in earshot. Tucker's all sweetness and light, chilling at home in Portland while she ponders a question about whether artists took on too much responsibility for rustling up the youth vote in the last U.S. election. I can also hear her young son in the background toddler-babbling about sunglasses and a promised trip to the park, which makes me wonder whether twisted fairytale Fox was written for him.
"Oh god, no way!" explodes Tucker, laughing. "Man, that's a sca-a-a-a-ry song. Lions And Tigers (the extra track included on bonus versions of their last disc, One Beat), now that's a song I wrote for my kid. Aw," she pauses, "that's such a cute, sweet pop song.
"All of The Woods came from our darkest sides."
Like, you made like hermits and didn't wash or shave or tend to personal hygiene?
"Oh yeah, totally. We basically made it in a cave in the woods in the middle of nowhere - you couldn't even walk around outside."
Exene Cervenka and Kim Gordon aside, moms who drive station wagons and buy novelty shades for their ankle-biters aren't supposed to make albums that sound like The Woods. They're supposed to make airy-fairy tracks you can play in your local Starbucks. For that matter, bands who've been together a decade aren't supposed to come out of left field with a career-best seventh album that rocks with such astounding heaviosity.
The Woods fucks with the core S-K formula (Janet Weiss's primal drumbeats + snaky shrill guitar licks + the interplay of Tucker's shrill yelps and Carrie Brownstein's grittier, more even-keeled vocals) in ways that make you forget all about the safe arty horns-and-melodies experiments they tried on One Beat.
Here you get the lurch and wallop of The Fox alongside swirling torrents of Jefferson Airplane-style psychedelic guitars on the epic Let's Call It Love, a panicked time-bomb jangle about suicidal commuters with dead souls on Jumpers, and pummelling, relentless drums and Brownstein's beefed-up snarl when she indicts pop culture on Entertain. Even the harmonica-juiced Modern Girl, the disc's bounciest ballad, dissolves into a dark, sinister edge.
Tucker claims that a lot of credit for their sonic transformation belongs to producer Dave Fridmann, the man who put his inimitable stamp on albums by Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips.
"He really pushed us. Like, if we wanted to do a massive guitar solo - something we'd been nervous about in the past - he'd tell us to do it and make it huge."
Unlike the bulk of the producer's recent output, you can't immediately identify The Woods as a Fridmann-helmed album. Anyone who, like myself, was concerned S-K's rockitude might be tempered by the dude's characteristic twinkly unicorn waltzes and shimmery bleeps can rest easy.
"At first we were like, 'Dave Fridmann? Huh?'" says Tucker. "It was Janet's [Weiss] idea. But then we talked to him on the phone and realized he wasn't gonna go totally nutso.
"It was definitely, on both of our parts, doing something really different," she continues. "Maybe more on our part than his , though. He had a vision of wanting the record to be totally raw and frightening and really intense."
Which it is except maybe for the jovially matter-of-fact "love has its ups and downs" ditty Rollercoaster, which features the plinking of a particularly prominent cowbell.
When I tell Tucker said track sparked a heated debate between me and my ex (herself an old-school S-K fan) about the usage of cowbell in the band's canon, she bursts out laughing.
"I love that you and your ex-girlfriend are arguing about our band. I can't believe we're all that interesting to people. But for the record, Sympathy, from One Beat, had huge-ass cowbell. I think a song from the Hot Rock had cowbell on it, too.
"It's so funny, though," she continues. "When we were working on Rollercoaster, we kept asking Dave to turn the cowbell up."
Like, "More cowbell"? Like, with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken in that SNL sketch and everything?
"Yeah, so we looked online to find out what famous songs had cowbells and somehow stumbled on this website that listed, like, every band that had ever used cowbell in a song. We scrolled down to the bottom of the page, and we were already there!"