When last we heard from Sleater-Kinney, on 2002's One Beat, one of indie rock's most musically and politically strident bands was as rattled as we were by 9/11. When they weren't mourning the dearth of modern protest songs, they were gazing up worriedly at the sky. On The Woods, they're no less angry or unnerved. ''The Red and the Blue now/It's Truth against Truth,'' rages Corin Tucker in ''Wilderness,'' her take on postelection fallout, while the band's other guitarist and singer, Carrie Brownstein, sneers at pop's embrace of retro culture in ''Entertain'': ''You're such a bore, 1984.''
Lyrics aside, The Woods is, thankfully, not just another in a string of samey Sleater-Kinney albums. Ten years after the release of their debut, the trio qualify as alt-rock old-timers. But here's the anniversary twist: They've taken a few pointers from, of all people, classic-rock dinosaurs. The Woods presents a trio unafraid to ditch all that is atonal (which was getting stale anyway) and indulge in labyrinthine guitars, and weave in and out of melodies like a jam band; in ''Jumpers'' (a spooky ode to Golden Gate Bridge suicide leapers), they combine their voices in sweet coffeehouse harmony. Janet Weiss attacks her kit as if she'd been listening only to Keith Moon for the last three years. All that's missing, really, is a drum solo.
While it's surprising to hear Sleater-Kinney act so traditional, it's more shocking how well such conventions suit them. The Woods is their hardest and heaviest, yet most varied, album. One minute they're locking into the pithy riff of ''Rollercoaster,'' an indie-rock 9 1/2 Weeks that turns unexpectedly wistful; on the next track, ''Steep Air,'' they're slowing down to a glum rumble. Which, in turn, leads into the 11 churning minutes of ''Let's Call It Love,'' where passion becomes a ferocious wrestling match and Tucker makes a case for the advantages of maturity (''A woman is not a girl/I could show you a thing or two,'' she informs the object of her desire). Brownstein's sardonic delivery also helps balance out the witchy-woman wail of Tucker, who had become indie's own Mariah Carey in the sandblaster-pipes department.
These days, plenty of bands aim to revive the sound and spirit of '60s rabble-rousers. Sleater-Kinney want to do that too, yet they do it far more subtly than by simply stealing old chord changes. With their lefty politics, up-against-the-wall anthems, and steely female voices, they're now picking up where pre-Starship Jefferson Airplane left off. Then as now, the center of American life may not be holding, to paraphrase Joan Didion by way of Yeats. But Sleater-Kinney have never sounded so centered, nor so potent.