Sleater-Kinney: The Path of Wellness Review – Two Go Bold… | Sleater-Kinney
TThe last time Sleater-Kinney released an album, there was an omnipotence to be done – at least, in the hectic world of progressive indie rock. The center will not hold (2019) boasted of a new producer – Annie “St Vincent” Clark – and a sleeker, brighter take on the band’s two-guitar post-punk.
Somehow – accounts differ – Sleater-Kinney’s revised working methods didn’t suit longtime drummer Janet Weiss, who left after the recording ended: A Rock Story ‘ Familiar, age-old n’roll with a sour aftertaste by reputation Sleater- Kinney has accumulated over 27 years as a positive female fraternity. A fan reaction ensued, as the search term “St Vincent broke Sleater-Kinney” always appears when you google them.
This 10th Sleater-Kinney album sings the first duet of guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker since the band’s early days. All the drama around The center will not hold has since been superseded – by the pandemic, by the Black Lives Matter 2020 protests in Portland, Oregon (where they are based) and by the wildfires that burned in the Oregon Hills last summer.
As the titles go, Way of well-being seems both sincere – and arch. “Drain me of my toxins, drain me of the life I lead,” sing Brownstein and Tucker on the title track, “But can you ever get rid of my human frailty.” The song resonates, its unstable post-punk reminiscent of the founding spirit of the group. On some level, it’s like the good old days, with underground guitar Lennons and McCartney strutting around in their quirky stuff. Annie Clark is gone – but not far away she and Brownstein worked together on an upcoming fake biopic, The hostel out of nowhere. But these 11 songs were all written and completely self-produced by Brownstein and Tucker; a few drummers and a handful of local Portland musicians provide additional touches of instrumentation. Only two abstract figures adorn the album cover, rendered by Portland artist Samantha Wall: Sleater-Kinney Has Been Reduced to Its Core.
And even, Way of well-being is not a homecoming, a DIY hairdressing exercise. Sleater-Kinney was never opposed to airs; they have a mile-wide classic rock streak and the experience of pushing the faders as they see fit. And that’s how the big chorus of Worry With You – the album’s first single – comes out punchy, all to be with the one you love in dark times. “Lets get lost, baby, and take the wrong turn,” sing Tucker and Brownstein, doubling over with joy and courage. Of course, Brownstein’s psychedelic guitar guarantees that this is not a conventional song.
Starting off as a dazzling rock song, High in the Grass once again shows how this inventive band can pull off sleight of hand. Tucker’s voice is airy and elegant, reminiscent of many pure-voiced folkies; the message is to seize the day. “We are leaving before the end of the concert,” she notes.
But ironically for an album released in 2020, the record stumbles the most when it tries to cope head-on in the time of its creation. Shadow Town most clearly reflects its Portland backdrop, with chaos on the streets and smoke billowing from the hills. For all Tucker reaffirms the need for love in extremis, the song itself advances uncertainly, failing to catch the light.
It’s hard to disagree with the feelings expressed by the band on the album’s last track, Bring Mercy. But he meets the moment with platitudes and a sluggish rhythm, a grandiose exit which stalls well below the rallying hymns of which this group is more than capable.
The path to well-being is best when Sleater-Kinney brings together anger, humor and playfulness – all qualities their last album had in spades, by the way. Complex female characters laugh at men who claim to enjoy female agency, but find it annoying that women actually exercise that agency.
Even if they double the fundamentals, Sleater-Kinney has not lost his sense of freedom, nor the need to broaden his brief. Accompanied by eloquent guitar ad-libs, Method finds Tucker channeling a little Chrissie Hynde and a lot of Patti Smith. “I’m not asking you to smile, you’re not a fucking kid,” she sings, “I’m just asking you to be with me.”
Whether this is all in response to fan backlash or because of a pandemic force majeure is a moot point. In a recent interview, Brownstein spoke out against the binary thinking of fans unable to let a band change. “I find it really interesting that the same people who reject conservatism [in politics] will insist on a very orthodox view of this group, ”she said,“ that those who resent binary oppositions on all fronts will be content with reductive, fixed, black and white narratives by Sleater-Kinney in refusing to recognize truths.