Carrie Brownstein, guitarist and singer of rock group Sleater-Kinney, is trying hard to get uncomfortable.
Leaping from their tried-and-true record label, Kill Rock Stars, to Sub Pop for their seventh album, The Woods, was clearly a step in the right direction.
"I was getting kind of tired of who we were," she says. "I knew what we were capable of ... and other people knew who we were. It was like we were stuck in a marriage where they never get out of the house, like one of those boring couples."
Brownstein started Sleater-Kinney nearly a decade ago with singer and co-guitarist Corin Tucker, and later added drummer Janet Weiss. Since then they've weathered college, touring and motherhood, rarely letting the musical ball slip. The Riot Grrrls have grown up and are producing their own brand of power rock.
The Woods, due out May 24, is a triumph, at once strikingly different from past albums (though closest to One Beat, their last disc) and very recognizably Sleater-Kinney. For every howling rocker ("The Fox"), a deceptively sweet number sneaks in ("Modern Girl").
Brownstein says part of S-K's growth comes from knowing each other's strengths and building on them.
"We often push each other as a band to the point of exhaustion and frustration," she says. "Corin can infuse a single word with six different emotions, and she's so powerful and she can do so much with her voice, and her lyrics are really emotional. ... Her songs tend to be tinged with positivity, and mine tend to be tinged with cynicism."
Jostling toward making a new, better album meant pushing the production envelope. Brownstein says the decision to switch labels was key to stirring their musical senses.
"I felt like we needed to shake things up a bit. Maybe step outside ourselves and not feel so comfortable in our space anymore. As wonderful as Kill Rock Stars is, we just felt so content with them. And I don't think contentment is always good for making art."
On their quest to make a challenging album, Sleater-Kinney essentially put the thorn into their own paw. The Woods is an immediate album that takes multiple listens to absorb. The lyrics are more ambiguous than before, being served almost alongside the music rather than appearing in the forefront.
"A lot of the themes on this record can't really be separated from the sonic context in which they're part of," says Brownstein. "Sonically, we wanted to create something that was a little more unsettling and less predictable."
A perfect example is "What's Mine Is Yours," one of the album's first surprises. Beginning with a traditional structure, the song disintegrates into Brownstein's far-out fuzz. (Hendrix would be proud.) Eventually, Corin's vocals and Weiss' powwow-thumping rhythms rein her in, coming back full circle.
Brownstein credits their new producer, Dave Fridmann -- whose past work includes albums by Weezer, the Flaming Lips, and Mogwai -- for the experimental kick in the pants.
"We played it for Dave, without the guitar solo, and he wasn't impressed," remembers Brownstein. Where the trio thought the song was new and interesting, Fridmann saw no difference from their previous work. "He said, 'If you want to change the song, then change the song.' ... Dave didn't want any subtlety to it at all."
Four takes of improvisational guitar work later, the song was set. Lessons were learned: Fridmann, it seemed, had little time for pissing around.
"We learned that if your idea is to destroy a song, or to mess with the structure that's predictable, then mess with it," Brownstein says.
Sometimes, though, Fridmann just confused them. But the band members wanted to work with someone fearless. They wanted to make themselves creatively uncomfortable so they'd be forced to adapt. In the end, that's precisely what happened.
"He once told Janet, 'I want it to sound like [The Who drummer] Keith Moon, but like someone throwing a blanket over Keith Moon,'" laughs Brownstein.
"He would describe these things, and we would try to figure out what he was talking about."
When Brownstein describes the lyrical and musical meanings of "What's Mine Is Yours," it's as if she's summarizing Sleater-Kinney's journey.
"To me, it's a reflection of where we're at, in the society that we live in. There's so much uncertainty right now, and so much that's unsettling," she explains. "In those moments when things when fall apart -- like in the middle of that song -- those are the moments that we have to try to live in, and just be OK with the discomfort."
-- Kara Luger
Release date: May 24