First come the unbelievable drums, fuzzy, crashing, cluttered then spare, a purposeful trudge dramatizing our politicians' lockstep imbecility. Then comes something mathematical, inscrutable. Then something soft, then hard again. And then again with the crashing, but always with space to breathe, always with a logic as emotional as it is musical. In a single song, a slow Sabbath pound, some simple trap-kit accompaniment and a headbanging one-two-three (breathe) four-five-six that the two other players will have to kill themselves to keep up with.
Janet Weiss' drums shout the same truths the lyrics do. She comes on like a paint mixer clattering down a staircase, but she never sounds showy.
Then the voice, horizon-wide and quavering, an all-levels-in-the-red scorcher that lesser bands would work for instead of with, fashioning songs not as the grand group workouts of The Woods Sleater-Kinney's latest but as coal to fire Corrin Tucker, the yowler. Sometimes the writing flags and she shreds to compensate; usually, at the band's best, she's just part of it, hustling to keep up, her exquisite tremble and wrath no more important than Carrie Brownstein's bristling-to-brutal guitar work. Brownstein's ax is remarkable for its rush of spiked notes, its sour truculence, the way it snaps and tangles with Tucker's. Live, Brownstein wields it and poses, her stance so iconic that if her band had bothered to become famous like everyone always says it could have, her badass silhouette would be on bumper stickers.
But that's just me. Like high school kids or record-store guys, we music writers are prone to excitable overstatement.
I was well aware of my own ridiculousness when, reviewing The Woods this summer, I claimed that the 11-minute riff colossus "Let's Call It Love" was stuffed with "all that dark matter scientists can't locate." More embarrassment from draft one: "Thick, hot and crushing, spuming black smoke and blacker screams, The Woods is the sound of God lit afire and crashing to Earth. ... Like Galactus, Corrin Tucker's voice devours worlds."
You get less of an idea what the band sounds like than if I'd hummed "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" into your voice mail. You don't get the harmonies, the delicate bits, the beauty of the tumult, the conviction in the politics, the courage or the honesty. The only idea communicated: "Hey, this guy likes Sleater-Kinney."
After years of stuffing rags like this with such hyperbole, is it possible for anyone to demonstrate convincingly the importance of a band?
Best I can give you is this: Sleater-Kinney is necessary.
It's Friday, and Corrin Tucker is in Canada. Or someplace.
Here she is, in midtour in support of The Woods, her band Sleater-Kinney's fiercest disc yet, its first on Sub Pop, the one that got the group on Letterman, the record so loud it blew out the speakers in Eddie Vedder's car. Things are going so smashingly that she manages to sound interested as some writer from some upcoming city eats up 25 of her cell minutes running her through the same questions she's constantly asked. Or maybe as the talk wears on, turning to didacticism and fear itself these aren't the questions she's always asked. Maybe as she wills the sun back into her voice and says that even she doesn't remember who "You're No Rock and Roll Fun" was about those same old questions would be preferable.
The new record, a tooth rattler caked with feedback, is supremely confident musically but less certain lyrically than previous discs. It's definitely less likely to spell out what's wrong and right with the world.
"The new songs," Tucker says, "are more about questioning than having an answer. They're unsettled."
Some are even a little scary. The new material is bigger, more bruising, stripped of the cute, buzz-pop feel that's leavened the last couple of records. A band could get lost in the new songs.
She concedes, "With the new ones, sometimes we don't really know where we're going to end up. Making this record was a challenge because we were reaching beyond for what was out of our range. But they really come across live. There's a power and a fire."
Lyrically, the band has always been more inclined to the sociopolitical than to the personal-sexual, but The Woods' standout, "Let's Call It Love," quivers with a new nastiness: Cups spill over, there's a promise of timing and tiger strength, and the memorable boast A woman is not a girl/I could show you a thing or two.
Quite a change.
"It is," Tucker says. "That confidence is a combination of getting older and having a child and all those intense life experiences."
They've been bold for a while, though. Check the earlier "Faraway," the only honest September 11 song, as memorable for its Live at Leeds ensemble rock as for its stinging line and the president hides while working men rush in and give their lives.
"I wish it didn't apply again," she says. "Writing that, the rage came right out. Times are hard and artists can dive in and use it [art] as an outlet. It's upsetting to see this president and how incredibly callous he is."
That's the band all over: saying what it feels must be said, even if it's "a little scary." Artists must push, never settle. Or, as Tucker puts it, "We should step outside ourselves and our limitations, because if we keep going down the road we're going on, we're going to be extinct."
Sleater-Kinney is coming to the Bottleneck. This band is gifted, restless, unafraid to grab at more than it's comfortable with but not so foolhardy to bother with what it can't master. Its members will never compromise, but they like the Bangles and back-up ooohh-a-whoos, and you never have to give the music extra credit for its politics like we used to do with Fugazi. They could be Durst-sized assholes and I'd still put "The Swimmer" up there next to "Wild Horses" or "Sympathy" alongside Nina Simone.
Some think they're hugely important, the equal of any of the greats in rock's moldering pantheon, but don't trust them. That's for you to decide. Listen. Buy. Download. Whatever.
Some critics think they're too earnest, too didactic. That Tucker shouts too much, that musicians shouldn't say things like Culture is what you make it/Now is the time to invent.
Bands shouldn't just say that. They should scream it, rap it, sing-along-thunderclap it. Put it on T-shirts. Skywrite it. Take out ads, paint it in bathrooms. Shout it so hard that the kids shout it, too.
Imagine it, scribbled in diaries or pinned up in junior-high lockers.
Imagine: a culture saved from its hijacking.
Imagine: a necessary band.