album review

Sleater-Kinney Is Whatever Sleater-Kinney Says It Is

Sometimes, rock canon and the accepted wisdom about the moment where a band or artist peaked fosters a limiting notion of what musicians are capable of. Photo: YouTube

Rock fans put a lot of stock in the concept of the “classic lineup,” that one world-beating arrangement of personnel responsible for a band’s most beloved output. Magic happens when chemistry clicks into place. When people sing the praises of Fleetwood Mac, they’re admiring the years where Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks showed up, and romantic tensions produced brilliant pop hits (with all due respect to the talents of founder Peter Green and notable players like Bob Welch and Danny Kirwan in the band’s early blues-rock era). When we celebrate Pink Floyd, we’re envisioning the years where Roger Waters and Syd Barrett made plush, trippy music about mental breakdowns, not the too-neat, conspicuously well-named, post-Rog ’80s nadir A Momentary Lapse of Reason; we don’t speak of Squeeze, the Velvet Underground album Doug Yule wrote after Lou Reed and John Cale left, the way we salute the proto-punk excellence of White Light/White Heat. The classic lineup is a useful sorting mechanism. It helps to direct listeners to a band’s most essential records. Without a guide, we’re adrift, paddling without a rudder in the oceanic expanse of the still-growing Prince catalogue, unsure which Bowie years were most golden, smothering in Bob Dylan’s back pages. But sometimes, rock canon and the accepted wisdom about the moment where a band or artist peaked fosters a limiting notion of what musicians are capable of. It can do a disservice to a long, strange, unpredictable journey. It can quell excitement for performers who still have a lot to say.

The punk-rock veterans in Washington’s Sleater-Kinney met in a chance encounter during the early ’90s (recalled in loving detail in the coming Audible Original One More Hour, a collection of stories and songs tracking the outfit’s nearly 30-year evolution) at a show featuring Corin Tucker’s Heavens to Betsy — a duo whose 1994 album Calculated is a touchstone of riot grrrl, an important feminist rejoinder to the ’90s punk boys’ club that saw stars like Tucker and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna elevating women’s issues in punk rock, leaving behind seminal records like Bikini Kill’s 1993 album Pussywhipped — and attended by Carrie Brownstein, then a member of her own band, Excuse 17. The two became close gigging around the Pacific Northwest and cemented the bond with Sleater-Kinney, a side project that quickly became a flagship for Corin and Carrie. It took a few drummers to sync up with Janet Weiss, an autodidact whose stick work was every bit as lean and impressive as the dueling guitar lines overhead. For ten years, this band didn’t miss, tapping into an endless well of inspiration and never ceasing to come back out with an enticing array of rockers that managed to feel heavy without being heavy, that hit hard employing mixes that were disconcertingly unfussed and bare bones. Sleater-Kinney’s sound beefed up in the aughts, keeping the trio competitive with the popular blues- and garage-rock acts of that time but never conceding to commercial mandates and mainstream trends. When the band took a decade-long hiatus to pursue other projects, like the Corin Tucker Band and Brownstein and Weiss’s supergroup Wild Flag, and struck back with the still-fierce No Cities to Love in 2015, it seemed Sleater-Kinney could play this way forever.

It wasn’t in the cards, though. On 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold, the band embraced breezier sounds and brighter hooks, warm atmospherics and chilly electronics. The orthodoxy revolted, fearing a hard left turn as news of Weiss’s abrupt departure broke early in the record’s rollout and feeling their apprehension was warranted when they found out Sleater-Kinney had changed the recipe. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs; stick “Can I Go On” or “Reach Out” on anyone else’s album, and their airtight riffs and chest-beating gang vocals are a win. For this band, careful inroads to new wave and soul music were tantamount to apostasy, even if the attentive listener knows these musicians’ outside repertoires include pop-rock tunes, acoustic ballads, math rock, and even the occasional sorta-country song. Sleater-Kinney had become something specific in our heads, something mighty but reliable and, as such, maybe a little predictable. On the inside looking out, though, Sleater-Kinney is whatever Sleater-Kinney says it is. “Sometimes it seemed like the reaction to The Center Won’t Hold was more about us refusing to conform to a codified and static version of ourselves,” Brownstein told Vuture last month about the reception of The Center Won’t Hold and the intentions behind its follow-up, this month’s Path of Wellness. To hear the band tell it, they had to escape the burden of expectations to please themselves and keep moving forward.

Path of Wellness is Sleater-Kinney’s first album without Janet Weiss since 1996’s Call the Doctor, and it flouts the accepted wisdom about what happens to bands when the most beloved lineup changes. Drum duties are handled by a roster of Portland-area musicians including touring percussionist Angie Boylan. Fleshing out the sound further are splashes of clavinet, bass, and organ. Conceptually, Wellness is a commentary on surviving unusual times, born in the midst of a divisive summer in Portland, one where nightly clashes between anti-fascist protesters and the members of the Portland Police Bureau and their admirers made national news, entering the spin cycle in a contentious presidential campaign where the incumbent sought to portray metropolitan America as a source of moral decay (the better to shore up his support with the sometimes affluent suburbanites lining his pockets). Sleater-Kinney turned to music for respite from the political strife outside and the physical and psychological challenges of a pandemic. “How do we face a moment, one that slaps across the cheek?” Corin sings in the closer “Bring Mercy.” “How did we lose our city, rifles running through our streets?” It’s hard to trace the precise point where things went left, but what will save us, in these songs’ estimations, are love, understanding, and companionship. The wolves are at our door, and it is imperative that we portray a united front. “If it’s coming for us, darling,” Carrie sings in the late-album highlight “Down the Line,” “take my hand and dance me down the line.”

Here, the dust kicked up in the shakeup that The Center Won’t Hold presented has settled. The band that seemed anxious to push itself and its audience in 2019 is just trying to stay alive and maybe have a good time along the way. Embellishments that might have jarred an album ago cradle Tucker and Brownstein’s riffs delicately; synth and organ lines creep up unexpectedly and unassumingly; the layers of keyboards in the chugging “Method” make it feel like some lost mid-’70s pub-rock nugget; “High in the Grass” and “Tomorrow’s Grave” revisit the chunky guitar riffs of 2005’s The Woods, while the title track and opener marries the clattering percussion of the last album’s first song to the cat-and-mouse guitar theatrics of the band’s early days. The caustic “Complex Female Characters” — a song about an entertainment industry that puts women on display but bristles at giving them agency — serves its message over serene, almost psychedelic grooves, eschewing spite for a simple plea: “Just do them right this time.” Path of Wellness is feel-good music for feel-bad times. To call the album a course correction, though, is to imply that there is a preordained path this band is meant to travel. Three albums in, Sleater-Kinney’s post-hiatus arc has come into greater focus, and the point seems to be to give people the space to surprise you sometimes. As much as Path of Wellness is an examination of the notion hinted at in its title — the sense that we are all on a quest to recover some semblance of joy and peace after one of the worst years in modern history — it’s also about not counting anyone out, about weathering change in stride. Path of Wellness is the smooth ride you can only truly appreciate after after a bout of turbulence. If you thought Sleater-Kinney was running on empty, Wellness is Lawyers in Love, a seemingly easy-going but quietly politically potent latter-day highlight that might not please everyone but offers undisputed proof this band can still hang.

Sleater-Kinney Is Whatever Sleater-Kinney Says It Is