Defector Music Club Gets Lost In Sleater-Kinney’s ‘The Woods’
11:47 AM EDT on October 19, 2023
Welcome to Defector Music Club, where a number of our writers get together to dish about an album and share our favorite new music. This month, Israel Daramola, Giri Nathan, Patrick Redford, David Roth, and Lauren Theisen observe Into The Woods Week by revisiting Sleater-Kinney's booming 2005 career-reinvention The Woods.
Roth: I will take readers Inside The Game here: I picked this record not because of some round-number anniversary of its release or even any special personal significance beyond it being an album I like by a band that I like, but because it was the first thing I thought of when I saw the Woods Week theme for the week of our retreat. So while it wasn’t a surprise to me how much I enjoyed listening to this record, which I have listened to many times previously—the CD case shows damage from sliding around on the floor of a car that has long since been junked, it’s absolutely “like that”—I still feel lucky that this, of all possible records, was the one that came to mind. What if our theme for this week had been “Vampire Workweek” or something? Anyway, as a member of Defector’s washed community, I am supposed to have opinions on this band and this record. How did you all come to Sleater-Kinney, and The Woods?
Giri: I remember the acclaim when The Woods came out, but I didn’t spend much time with the record then. A fuller appreciation hit more recently, as part of a slow-building realization that lots of my favorite rock music had come out of the Pacific Northwest. I’d spent a decent amount of time in the region, and aside from the bivalves and fungi, I think those Angular Guitars are their most wonderful cultural export. (Are we making guitars angular again, folks?) In the last three-ish years I’d taken a more deliberate dive into the S-K discography and it goes so, so hard. Very good exercise music, in its way.
Lauren: I’m racking my brain and can’t specifically figure out how I got into Sleater-Kinney. “Modern Girl” definitely would have been first, and then maybe “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun,” but I think these all just sort of ambiently entered my brain through various cool people and outlets. (It helped, too, that I watched a decent amount of IFC when Portlandia was on.) I got into them more specifically when No Cities came out and they did a comeback tour. I had a sense of them as one of the biggest bands in the world when I saw them close up at a festival in Chicago that year. When I used to be more anxious than I am now, Hot Rock was my comfort record. I’ve grown a little further from the band, but for a long time they were a day-to-day presence in my life. The Woods has reliably been part of that relationship, and “Modern Girl” in particular is one of those universally agreed-upon songs, but this album as a whole is maybe not quite so important to me as some of their other records.
Israel: I have spent a lot of time in the ensuing years with Sleater-Kinney and I feel comfortable declaring them my second favorite female-led band behind Hole, but I was not listening to them in 2005. I was listening to Taking Back Sunday and the emo Blink 182 album and too much Lupe Fiasco at that point. My relationship with Sleater-Kinney began properly because of Carrie Brownstein’s turn in Portlandia, a show so twee I can’t believe it ever actually existed, and isn’t just a fever dream I had one time. At any rate, Dig Me Out was my starting point and I adore that album. The Woods was good but I don’t think it hit me just how good until this revisit for the blog. It’s so strong and so self-assured and Corin Tucker has probably one of my favorite voices in rock and she really does some great stuff with it and this record. An interesting thing about this record is how openly it wears its influences, be it Kim Gordon/Sonic Youth or The White Stripes, you can tell what they’ve been listening to from track to track. It’s the kind of thing I definitely would not have noticed or paid attention to before.
Patrick: I must admit in shame that I first discovered SK years after their hiatus, as, and I am so sorry to write the following sentence and echo my colleagues, “Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia’s band.” Feels bad. But I remember listening to “One More Hour” for the first time in college in like 2013 or some shit and experiencing an almost religious high. There was this undeniable electricity to it, a rawness that I needed to find some way to commune with even if it would destroy me. Almost certainly people have written better songs about something approaching that feeling, but to me, the clarity and—should I say it, they don’t want me to say it, I’m gonna say it—angularity are undeniable in an elemental way.
Roth: Portlandia leading several of you to this band retrospectively justifies the show’s existence for me.
Giri: The Defector mediums are continuing a proud legacy here—finding out about David Bowie via The Life Aquatic, or, accursedly, Mr. Deeds.
Patrick: Imagining the inverse here, where someone discovers that the singer from Dead Man’s Bones is a famous Hollywood actor.
Israel: “Wait, Dogstar’s Keanu Reeves? That guy, the bassist? He’s John Wick??”
Roth: Yeah, I only watched L.A. Confidential because I’m such a huge 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts fan.
So as an old person, Sleater-Kinney represented the absolute apex of a kind of ‘90s coolness to me; it is on brand for me that I was initially a little bit scared of it. The first records of theirs that I heard, which were Call The Doctor and Dig Me Out, were not necessarily what I was listening to at the time, which was mostly underground hip-hop songs about the importance of making underground hip-hop songs and much fussier indie rock shit, but they were undeniable. I did not think the people making this music would like me very much, but I thought that about everyone at the time, and more importantly I knew that I liked the songs, pretty much right away.
This record, in a bunch of ways, is a long way from those—produced and recorded by Dave Fridmann up in the part of New York State we know as “Tom Ley Country” instead of in the Pacific Northwest, with a different scope and sound (and length) to the songs than they’d really done before. I revere Fridmann, who produced all those bright, busy, meticulous Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse records in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, but I don’t really think of this as sounding like any of those. The record sounds loud, and while the reviews at the time were all about its debt to classic rock and such I don’t really hear a lot of, like, Led Zeppelin in here. Beyond the fact that the drumming sounds incredible.
Patrick: I’m so glad you brought up the drums specifically, there’s such an intensity to them, like Fridmann and Janet Weiss found a way to capture that perfect tone on “Race For The Prize” but then make 10,000x more ferocious.
Giri: I don’t have the production vocabulary to explain why, but I rarely hear drums in popular rock music (to the extent this is not an oxymoron) that recall the feeling of actually being in a room where a drum is being struck. They’re so crisp and immediate on this record.
Lauren: It’s a real contrast to 2019’s The Center Won't Hold, where St. Vincent’s creative presence seemingly homogenized her role so much that Weiss no longer felt she had a place in the band.
Israel: Her drums to close out “Jenny” on Dig Me Out are forever etched in my brain. St. Vincent you will pay for your crimes.
Roth: I think she’s one of the very best rock drummers I’ve ever heard and I just kind of made the decision not to acknowledge the version of the band that exists without her. I’m sure the songs are still good, but I simply do not have time for that in my life at this juncture!
One other bit of contextual stuff I want to talk about is the 2005-ness of this record.
Lauren: I was very much hoping you could help with the 2005-ness of this record. My thinking is that it’s their first record put out after the internet becomes, like, a mainstream place to discover new rock music? And I almost feel like it’s made as a new introduction to the band, with really thought-through songs that consciously demonstrate all their strengths. (The previous One Beat and All Hands On The Bad One are to me their least focused works, though “Sympathy” rips.)
Roth: You have no idea how much I wanted, how long I have waited, to explain how powerfully shitty 2005 was to the homies. So the album they put out before this, One Beat, comes out in 2002, has some pretty explicitly protest-oriented songs on it, and I remember it as the first of their records that people had really had any misgivings about. I haven’t revisited it in a minute, but it wasn’t one of my favorites of theirs at the time, not because I was bumping that Toby Keith “Put A Boot In Your Ass (Remix)” but because it kind of felt like…well not a rehash, but familiar, and I guess also because everything felt pretty bad then. This record came out three years after, it sounded completely different in a number of ways, and yet I think in having listened to it a bunch over the last few days that it distills the anguish of living in that moment—a shitty, mean popular culture; a grinding, stupid war that already felt like it would never end; a political culture that, at the highest levels, could hardly have been more grandiose or sadistic and which plainly believed it would rule forever—much more clearly, if much less directly, than One Beat did. This is a very angry record, and a very dark one in some ways—fucking “Jumpers” for one—but it also feels like and sounds like a band getting a handle on what to do with those feelings.
Lauren: It’s funny, I almost don’t consciously hear it as such an angry record, because it’s a little slower and a little more considered than what’s on, say, Call The Doctor. Musically, it’s much more classic rock and maybe post-punk than outright furious fast-paced punk. But there’s a lot of maturity in that, being able to express frustration in more than just two minutes and a few lines.
Israel: I mean, like I mentioned before, Blink 182 made an emo record like a year or two before. Things were very maudlin all over, clearly. Put your pants back on and jacket.
Roth: The idea of “the politically charged new Blink 182 record” is very powerful.
Patrick: Maybe I am being stupid but I remember Incubus doing just that, what a time to have a reasonably plastic brain.
Roth: So what songs on here did you all connect to the most? I love “Entertain” but there is a lot of heat on this.
Israel: “Modern Girl” really stood out to me as a no doubt banger. That and “Let’s Call It Love.”
Lauren: “The Fox” is a perfect opener. In 20 seconds you know exactly what you’re in for the rest of the way, and you’re so hyped about it.
Giri: “Jumpers” is the one for me. To keep playing with the awful word “emo,” and to take it back to its hardcore roots, that music is all about dynamic range. The soft parts lull you in and the loud parts blow your ears back. That contrast plays out beautifully on this track—chant vs. shriek, pluck vs. shred—and it crests with one of my very favorite guitar solos.
Patrick: I’m hopelessly “Jumpers”-pilled, though I have to cheat here because I think of the run from that song, through “Modern Girl” to “Entertain” as the emotional and propulsive center of this record. Like Giri said, the loud and quiet parts build each other up on that song, and the unraveling at the end of it feeds into the disquieting prettiness of “Modern Girl” in this perfect little way. (A stupid comparison I stumbled into that I can’t shake is “Modern Girl” to “Bound 2,” this little moment of slow beauty on a super focused and otherwise earth-shaking album that roots the noisiness of the rest of the record, hints at undermining it but ultimately reaffirms it, and serves as a very funny joke. Heaven, in other words, is the club on a Thursday.)
Roth: As I said, I think there’s no bad answers here. But I think the differences between those songs—“The Fox” is super sludge-y, “Modern Girl” is this beam of sarcastic sunshine (I love the “Bound 2” comp in that sense), “Jumpers” is so anguished and so commanding in that push-pull way that Giri mentioned, “Entertain” is just kind of a classic Carrie Brownstein Is Going Off Sleater-Kinney song that is half-again longer/heavier than previous versions—are not just why the record is so fun to listen to, but so impressive. There are a lot of different frustrations running through all that, some very 2005 feelings about stagnation and despair and all that, but somehow they all come out sounding different, musically, tonally, whatever.
Lauren: We haven’t talked about S-K in the context of riot grrrl, but I think especially 20 years ago there was/is something affirming and thrilling about a band of women rocking out like they’re playing “Whole Lotta Love” at MSG. It’s definitely condescending when people try to put S-K in a box of “girl band that boys can like,” but in this specific context it feels like a flag-planting moment in a career full of them.
Roth: Yeah, I am recognizing myself in that. All of it, really, right down to why I reconnected to this band so strongly when they started making songs that sounded a bit more like the songs I was listening to then, with a producer I already liked. But I think, beyond my own cluelessness and biases, that there’s always something gratifying—in this case, I want to use a word like “thrilling” but feel kind of corny in doing so, so I’m putting it in a parenthetical instead—in a band that has been a band for this long making the decision to do something different and then just absolutely sticking it.
Lauren: One other thing I want to get off my chest is that, when I saw them on the No Cities tour in the winter, after my transcendent Chicago experience, I was a little bummed by the crowd, which had the energy of an art museum. I felt like a lot of people were there because they were told that Sleater-Kinney was Important in the context of feminist music, or because they wanted to impress someone, and I even remember Carrie saying something like “Guys, we’re not a serious band. You can move around.” Anyway, I say that because, as worthy as Sleater-Kinney is of a proper canonization, and as historically legendary as riot grrl has become, their music was still adrenalizing and powerful and, above all, fun to jump around to.
Roth: Yeah I think that’s something to mention, that while they really are an Important Band, they have always rocked v. strongly, and that this record is not remotely a chin-stroking homework assignment thing. It’s loud and confident and swaggy, as much so as the records that made them but just in this very different style. I am glad to have had the excuse to listen to it six times in three days.
Before we end I want to talk about “Let’s Call It Love,” because as I recall it got the most attention from critics—can you believe Sleater-Kinney has a 13-minute song on their new record etc etc. I have a higher tolerance for long songs with long guitar solos than I sense some of you might. How did that one sit with you?
Lauren: You’re speaking to a gigantic Phish fan. (And Patrick’s got a lot of love for the Dead, if memory serves.) I’m not saying it’s a jam band song, exactly, but it’s both a really show-offy flex and something that’s really able to maintain its intensity the whole way through.
Israel: My most boomer take is I love a good guitar solo, go as long as you want when the spirit moves you.
Giri: My rule of thumb on guitar solos is that you should be breaking a sweat, and I should sort of want to break something. My ruling: That shit is dripping!
Patrick: The album-ending guitar solo should have been longer. I’m here to get my shit rocked. How you gon’ be mad on vacation?
Defector's Favorite Jams Right Now
Parannoul — Beautiful World
A one-sentence description of Parannoul: A still-anonymous genius living in Seoul is making lightly Deafheaven-coded M83/My Bloody Valentine records from his bedroom, and they go hard.
I have a feeling that if you've read a few thousand words about Sleater-Kinney, then you like both 1) rock music and 2) women. Great news! Alicia Bognanno, who makes music as Bully, released a record called Lucky for You back in June that I think is the best straight-up collection of guitar songs from the entire year. We're a little past the hot weather now, but the one-two opening punch of "All I Do" and "Days Move Slow" feel fine-tuned to play in a packed car with the windows down. There's just a constant feeling of buoyant forward motion the whole time you're listening. Even if we've now creeped into Pensive Season, these songs are worth hanging on to.
Explosions In The Sky — End
While we're talking about bands that I already knew I liked making records in which they expand their sound somewhat, I have really enjoyed the new Explosions In The Sky record over my first few listens. The sweep and scale are still there, obviously; I can't imagine a small-sounding Explosions In The Sky record. But there are sounds and textures in this that I hadn't encountered in previous records, and the interplay between the expected and unexpected is bracing and (more predictably) beautiful.
Ralphie Choo — "TANGOS DE UNA MOTO TRUCADA"
I am enjoying this debut album by Ralphie Choo, and this is the track that first pulled me in—the flutes, the claps, the traces of every genre without ever committing to any specific one. Listening to this record I thought of birds that pick up all manner of eye-catching bits and bobs, only to weave them into something awkward and beautiful.