“A decade is a long time to be in a band; you almost feel a little bit sick of who you are,” explained Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein in 2005. By this point in their career, the band had surpassed their DIY queercore roots in 1990s Olympia, Washington to become feted indie-rock champs – a success built on Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s interlocking guitars, Tucker’s unhinged vocals and Janet Weiss’ bolshy percussion. But after six similar albums and a challenging tour for 2002’s political post-9/11 album ‘One Beat’, the trio were agitated, itching to “stretch their legs”. The resulting album, 2005’s ‘The Woods’, released 10 years ago this weekend (May 24), was the sound of Sleater-Kinney abandoning their comfort zone while simultaneously ripping into the bland careerism they saw stirring around them: “How can you sound that much like Ian Curtis and be singing about nothing?” asked an incredulous Brownstein in one interview. Here’s the album’s story, from its cover to its coruscating sound…
Portland-based artist Michael Brophy painted the album’s surreal cover art: leafy redwood trees sprouting out of a stage floor, a setting sun in the distance casting dark shadows. It’s a striking juxtaposition of the natural and the staged, the scarlet theatre curtains hinting at an act drawing to a close.
1. After a career-long stint on Kill Rock Stars with producer John Goodmanson, S-K switched to Sub Pop for ‘The Woods’ and drafted in Dave Fridmann to assist on what would be a radical unspooling of their sound. “We [were] sick of people feeling they know who we are and what we’re capable of,” said Brownstein. “I remember thinking in the studio that I’d really love to make some of our fans kind of angry.”
2. For this album, Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss decamped to record in Cassadaga in rural, upstate New York in midwinter, for what they describe as “an intense experience” recording for 12 hours every day hemmed in with 10 feet of snow.
3. Many songs were recorded in one take, with Friddman making surreal suggestions for inspiration. “He’d say things to Janet like, ‘Play like Keith Moon, but Keith Moon with a blanket coming down over him,’” recalls Tucker.
4. The final two songs, ‘Let’s Call It Love’ and ‘Night Light’ were recorded together as the band realised they were in the same key and could segue into one another.
5. Critics loved ‘The Woods’, but fans were divided over this new direction. Brownstein was unfazed: “I’d rather have people be divided on it and feel passionately that it’s our worst or best record than feel nothing.”
“Took my money and bought a TV/TV brings me closer to the world” (‘Modern Girl’): This rolling, harmonica-frilled number prickles with disgust at vacuous, apolitical mid-noughties consumer culture.
“You’re such a bore, 1984/Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore” (‘Entertain’): Sleater-Kinney gave zero fucks for unoriginal bands, and weren’t afraid to say so.
“There is a bridge adored and famed/The Golden spine of engineering/Whose back is heavy with my weight” (‘Jumpers’): A charged, gripping number inspired by the many suicides who leap to their death from California’s Golden Gate Bridge.
What we said then
“Even the most ardent fan would find it difficult to imagine that the trio had an album like this in them, but ‘The Woods’ is exhilaratingly loud and startlingly ambitious.” Hardeep Phull, 8/10
What we say now
‘The Woods’ proved S-K were fearless, unafraid to challenge themselves. ‘Jumpers’ and ‘Modern Girl’ have aged finely into fan favourites; Brownstein even lifted the title of the latter for her upcoming biography, ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl’.
“If ‘The Woods’ were a live show it’d be one of the best shows I’d ever seen. It also sounds like a band’s first record, all this stuff coming out at once. It’s so galvanized and powerful.” Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam
In their own words
“The songs sound urgent and aggressive and raw in a way that I feel like sonically hasn’t been there for a while. I think the vocabulary is a little bit different… people will either get it or they won’t.” Carrie Brownstein, 2005, The AV Club
The trio immediately announced an indefinite hiatus. All three members eventually surfaced some years later with new projects: Tucker produced two solo albums (‘1000 Years’ in 2010 and ‘Kill My Blues’ in 2012) and Brownstein teamed up with Weiss to form rock outfit Wild Flag, while simultaneously carving out a comedy career with Fred Armisen on popular Netflix show Portlandia. Ten years after their split, a vinyl boxset – ‘Start Together’ – appeared, heralding a triumphant return in this year’s electrifying ‘No Cities To Love’ LP.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews