The last decade has been a strange one for those unfortunate enough to be cast as "women in rock." On one hand, artists are routinely ghettoized into packaged stories (like this one) that draw tenuous connections where there should be none. Yet the best of these "women in rock" have pushed their music into an entirely new realm of sound that's neither we-can-do-it-too reductionism nor suffused with those particularly feminine expectations of introspection and sensitivity.
Sleater-Kinney has been a brash and explosive focal point for this movement. The group has produced a string of invigorating and relentlessly rocking records that are as singular as they are exciting; no guy nor girl could bellow with the same tremulous rage that Corin Tucker conjures at the beginning of "The Fox." That rage is what opens The Woods the seventh album of S-K's 10-year existence. Though the group has been notorious for its guitar-driven intensity, this album is by far Sleater-Kinney's most rock-oriented adventure.
The Woods is also Sleater-Kinney's most consistent and impressive recording, which is saying a lot when you consider the quality of the material they've put out to this point. The album shows a band fully possessed of its own individual sound, and willing to work within and around that sound's parameters. Tracks like the dirgey bludgeon of "Let's Call It Love" and the garage-pop of "What's Mine Is Yours" manage to be emotionally raw and musically visceral but surprisingly self-aware and (gasp) mature in execution. Sleater-Kinney knows who they are three girls kicking your ass in a way that only three girls could and they've never sounded better doing it.
Mary Timony still seems to be figuring things out, even though she's been in the indie-rock game about as long as the members of Sleater-Kinney have. Timony was in Autoclave in the early '90s, but refined her musical voice with the quirkily melodic guitar-pop of Helium and then shocked everyone in 2000 with a solo album, Mountains, that abandoned that voice for an ill-advised foray into musical and lyrical complexity that she was completely unprepared to handle. The Golden Dove in 2002 saw her working her way back to the off-kilter pop of Helium. It's fair to say that Timony's solo career to this point has been frustratingly spotty: Although Helium was essentially guided solely by her, she was still hemmed in by the participation of her bandmates (notably Polvo guitarist and Timony boyfriend Ash Bowie) and the very concept of Helium. Her reaction? Run as far away as possible.
Thankfully, time has allowed Timony to reclaim her own voice. Ex Hex, her latest album, is stripped down to electric guitar, drums and the simple, forceful melodic weirdness that made Helium so engaging. In fact, Timony can be caught quoting from her own earlier compositions on more than one occasion. In the same way that producer Dave Fridmann helped to solidify and expand Sleater-Kinney's sound on The Woods, the production work of Brendan Canty (Fugazi) was integral in encouraging Timony to become comfortable with herself. He did not allow her to rely on dense guitar tracks or prog-rock instrumentation to bring about some sort of "otherness."
What's most encouraging about Ex Hex, and in a parallel sense, The Woods, is that these two albums show how much creative leeway the "rock underground" allows its girls and boys. Were Timony on a major label, she'd be pigeonholed as either "cute" or "sensitive," rather than weird and indecisive. Sleater-Kinney would be steely and aggressive to the point of ridiculousness. But hey, that's another women-in-rock story altogether.