Sleater-Kinney's large, devoted following generally thinks the group hit its peak around its third record, Dig Me Out, which cemented its sound: simple, catchy, punkish rock powered by two guitars, drums, and vocal harmonies. Four albums later, Sleater-Kinney has rebelled against that notion on The Woods, a quasi-psychedelic, classic-rock-sounding epic.
The change is immediate and startling. Heavily distorted, fuzzy guitars drench the challenging first song, "The Fox." Corin Tucker sings and shouts oblique, children's-parable lyrics over shaky verses that give way to propulsive bridges, but never resolve into choruses. Fans will recognize Sleater-Kinney in subsequent tracks, such as "Wilderness" and "What's Mine Is Yours," but even familiar-sounding songs segue into blaring guitar excess. Most striking of all, The Woods is loud. Instruments and vocals bury the needle in the red, crackling and popping with a distortion that's not a studio effectit occasionally sounds as if something's wrong with the recording. The sound even carries over to the lighter songs, such as Carrie Brownstein's "Modern Girl." Nothing remains clean, as if Sleater-Kinney and producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips) wanted everything to sound dirty and loose.
The intensity jumps significantly on the sixth track, "Entertain," which seethes with unprecedented aggression and ends with a gut-checking crescendo that makes Sleater-Kinney seem even more powerful in its new skin. Most ambitious are the two closing tracks, the 11-minute "Let's Call It Love" and the three-minute-plus "Night Light," which the band improvised and recorded in one take. Punk rock isn't known for its musical improvisation, but Sleater-Kinney pulls it off, seamlessly segueing between the songs with the confidence of a seasoned jam band. Maybe The Woods could redefine punk itself: In a world where the mainstream has co-opted punk's sound, could classic rock be the new punk? Although hard to digest at first, The Woods ingratiates itself on subsequent listens, making the band's other albums seem half-baked by comparison. Sleater-Kinney might have set the bar impossibly high for its subsequent albums.