Album Reviews

Sleater-Kinney: Path of Wellness – “a fork in the road”

The Portland duo self-produce their latest LP – the first in 25 years without Janet Weiss.

Bands reforming. Make no bones about it, it’s a contentious thing.

When Sleater-Kinney called it a day following the release of 2005’s fantastic The Woods, it was certainly a case of a band burning out than fading away.

From there, each band member moved on to do their own thing. Corin Tucker formed her own band, the aptly titled Corin Tucker Band. Janet Weiss still performed as one half of the great duo, Quasi, whilst also joining Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.

Carrie Browstein garnered the most fame and success, co-producing and appearing in the satirical comedy series, Portlandia, alongside Fred Armisen. As well as Portlandia, Brownstein and Weiss formed Wild Flag, with Helium’s Mary Timony and The MindersRebecca Cole.

So Sleater-Kinney seemed a concern firmly etched to past memories.

Fast forward to 2021 and here we find Sleater-Kinney dipping their toe into the waters of easy-listening. While some may cringe about this fact, it’s probably a better proposition than what many were faced with in 2019.

Yes, The Center Won’t Hold was pretty lacklustre. In fact, it was worse than that. It was truly terrible.

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Not least the album itself, produced by St. Vincent who joined the broad-church of musicians who shouldn’t be allowed near a mixing desk (sorry Beck, Jeff Tweedy), but the departure of Weiss most certainly added to the sourness surrounding the 2019 version of Sleater-Kinney.

Weiss‘ split from the band felt like a kick in the teeth to many of the band’s devotees, not only because Weiss is one of the greatest drummers in the indie-rock pantheon, but because the unity many of us thought this band had was seemingly crushed.

Admittedly this is life, though. Nothing lasts forever and just like friendships, artistic transparency is a fragile thing.

Sleater-Kinney - Path of Wellness

In fairness, preceding this, Sleater-Kinney’s reformation seemed to be held together by duct tape rather than bricks and mortar. Sure, 2015’s comeback album, No Cities to Love gained plaudits from many, but to these ears it felt stale, a band who once packed the mightiest punch, now a band swinging at thin air.

Despite what many may think, this isn’t a verbal pile-on. Personally, Sleater-Kinney were a big fucking. The day I met my wife I happened to be sporting the notorious ‘Horse’ T-Shirt. It wasn’t my ugly mug that grabbed my late wife’s attention, it was the horse, which I was constantly reminded of for the proceeding 12-and-a-half years, while Modern Girl (despite its anti-capitalist themes) was oddly enough our song! I guess I have Carrie, Corin and Janet to thank for that…

Which leads us to Path of Wellness, the band’s latest album, which arrives as a twofold thing. Ignore it completely, or see what it’s about? Naturally, the latter transpires and it’s far from the train-wreck its predecessor was.

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With Brownstein and Tucker taking the production reins for the first time, the opening title track is one of those broken-hearted love songs inspired by the rock ’n’ roll greats. It’s not something we would normally associate with Sleater-Kinney, but this band is a different proposition in 2021. It’s a band getting back to basics.

High in the Grass, however, is something we’re more attuned to. Brownstein’s soprano-meets-banshee roars don’t get too much play on Path of Wellness and while this is one of the band’s strongest weapons, the most elusive in their arsenal is their killer melodies, and here Brownstein and Tucker give us one of their best.

So, too, on Method, with Brownstein parting with one of the finest moments on Path of Wellness as she blinds us with a love song that drips with venom, “I’m singing about love/But it’s coming out like hate”.

While in the past Favourite Neighbour would have been quite rightly seen as vintage Sleater-Kinney, Weiss‘ thunderous drum fills from behind the kit are a noticeable absentee, essentially seeing the track fall short of where it needs to be.

So, about that easy-listening vibe. Some may see it as a band that have lost their zest. On Path to Wellness, there are still embers that flicker from Sleater-Kinney’s fiercest fires, Dig Me Out, One Beat, and The Woods (“You’re not enough of a woman now/You’re too much of a woman now/You’re not a real woman now”Complex Female Characters), but they don’t provide enough warmth for us to stick around long enough. This is a band that always asked the sharpest questions and provoked thought amid a backdrop of cutting-edge, raucous musicianship.

Without Weiss, it’s not the same, to the point where it just doesn’t feel like Sleater-Kinney. That’s not to say Path of Wellness is a bad record by any stretch. A bit like Interpol without Carlos D, perhaps. This is an album that provides a fork in the road.

Make of it what you will and if it’s not your thing, there’s always something else to move on with. But for those who once thought that Sleater-Kinney were one of the most important bands on the planet, there’s a little bit here that reminds us of that glorious past.  

Path of Wellness is out now via Mom+Pop. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

3 replies on “Sleater-Kinney: Path of Wellness – “a fork in the road””

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