Alternative Classic Rock 

Sleater-Kinney and the Hold Steady look back but aim high on great new albums.

As regular Flyer's contributor Stephen Deusner notes with some dismay this week, "post-punk nostalgia" seems to be the reigning style for would-be-hip guitar rock these days, with the sound and style of old new wave informing buzz bands from the prefab (the Bravery) to the just plain fab (Franz Ferdinand -- like the Talking Heads gone shamelessly pop).

But, for whatever its worth, the two hands-down best guitar-rock records of 2005 so far evoke those pre-punk dinosaurs we now call classic rock.

Three-member Pacific Northwest punk band Sleater-Kinney are supposed to be the furthest thing imaginable from classic rock. Riot-girl grads back when they debuted in 1995, their spirited, amateurish music embodied punk's DIY principle -- the notion that anybody could do this. A decade later, the band's leftist politics are still in good standing, but they've evolved in a manner that gives lie to the punk promise: Very few people can do what this band does.

Since adding powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss to guitarist-singers Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker for 1997's whiplash Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney has evolved into arguably the most accomplished rock band on the planet. Cite U2 and Radiohead all you want, but there's no more flawless or durable sound in all of rock music than the guitar-drum-voice of Brownstein, Weiss, and Tucker. Indeed, the virtuosity of those three sonic elements acting in concert evokes nothing so much as an earlier guitar-drum-voice nexus: Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, Jon Bonham, and Robert Plant.

Sleater-Kinney's gender, lyrical concerns (political and relationship musings instead of leering blues tropes and fantasy frippery), and musical roots (punk rather than blues) are radically different from Led Zep, but their sonics are closer to those durable arena gods than anything in punk rock, right down to the way Tucker's titanic pipes, much like Plant's operatic banshee wail, inspire as many detractors as devotees.

Sleater-Kinney's cultural moment (a decade ago, Greil Marcus was writing Time magazine profiles hailing them as America's best band) may have passed, but the band is in such command of its sound that they are no more capable of making a bad record than Led Zep or the Rolling Stones were in the early '70s. Their latest, The Woods, only underscores this classic-rock-style command.

Less blistering and delighted than Dig Me Out and without the precision and clarity of 2003's diamond-hard and beautiful One Beat, The Woods is nevertheless a near sonic equal of those great records. It's more rattled, more chaotic, more fuzzed-out. It's where Brownstein (owner of the finest guitar-star dance moves since prime Prince) gets to flaunt her inner guitar god, unleashing a solo on "Wilderness" that would fit in on Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and otherwise freaking out like she's on stage at the Fillmore back in '69, all while Tucker shreds vocal cords and Weiss pounds the skins like Keith Moon never went away. The centerpiece is the 11-minute "Let's Call It Love," which opens with huge distorted guitar riffs and Tucker exploring the blues-mama belting she first flashed on One Beat's closing "Sympathy." At the five-minute mark, it takes off, launching into a furious jam that might be at home on a Bonnaroo stage if the sheer aggression of it wouldn't frighten the gentle hippie kids.

But as good as The Woods is, the best guitar-rock record so far this year belongs to Brooklyn cult band the Hold Steady. The band's 2004 debut, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, simultaneously topped Rolling Stone and Spin magazine lists of "best records you haven't heard," and deservedly so. But the new Separation Sunday is even better.

Where Almost Killed Me was very self-consciously a bar-band record, Separation Sunday tackles more expansive, more romantic classic-rock influences, most notably Bruce Springsteen, but also evoking such Boss-lite figures as Billy Joel, Meatloaf, Bob Seger, and Thin Lizzy. In concert with this increase in sonic ambition are greater thematic concerns.

Where the songs on Almost Killed Me were relatively self-contained, Separation Sunday is more akin to Fiestas and Fiascos, the swan song from singer Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler's previous band, Lifter Puller. Fiestas and Fiascos was a song cycle about the seedy goings-on at a rock bar called the Nice Nice. There were separate tracks on the CD, with separate song titles and everything, but functionally, it all ran together as one long, vicarious, cinematic musical experience.

Separation Sunday works the same way, but with more gravitas and emotional commitment. The album's story ("a comeback story," Finn calls it) centers on a Catholic schoolgirl named Hallelujah (Holly for short) who skips out on CCD class and falls in with shady characters, first diving into the rock scene, then the drug scene, getting involved with drug trafficking. Years later, she wakes up in a confessional and then stumbles back to her old church, crashing Easter mass, limping on broken heels with an offer to tell the congregation how a resurrection really feels.

Finn, perhaps the most distinctive singer and songwriter in pop music right now (like Tucker, he inspires detractors), tells the story in a series of lunging, literary rants, while the band spins classic-rock riffs and swooning piano licks around him, just trying to keep up. The story allows Finn and company to tap into the nearly religious, romantic fervor that teenagers and 20-somethings sometimes invest in music-related social culture, which has always been Finn's great subject, even if the immediacy of his performances masks the intellectual distance from which he approaches it.


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