Twenty-five years into their existence, Sleater-Kinney have already broken up and re-formed once. Their drummer Janet Weiss announced her decision to leave from the group shortly after their latest album, “The Center Won’t Hold,” received a release date, saying that she was unhappy with its direction. (She’s now part of Kermit the Frog’s touring band!) They’re the most popular group to emerge from the riot grrrl scene of the ‘90s, reaching a much wider audience than feminist punk bands like Bratmobile or Huggy Bear while sharing the same basic politics.
Their sound has been defined by the interplay of their two singer/ guitarists, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and the complex drumming of Weiss, who joined in 1996. “The Center Won’t Hold” makes a big change toward a more pop-oriented direction. Synthesizers are all over the album. Queer singer/ songwriter St. Vincent produced the album, and it reflects the direction she’s pursued in her own recent music. This isn’t the first time Sleater-Kinney looked to a producer for an injection of new blood: Dave Fridmann, who worked with them on “The Woods,” the final album by their first incarnation, pushed the group toward the hard rock of Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin.
However, “The Woods” was still fairly raw guitar-based rock. “The Center Won’t Hold” is the biggest departure of Sleater-Kinney’s career. “Restless” uses strings. The final song is a piano-based ballad inspired by Rihanna. Weiss might be unhappy because she’s clearly playing along programmed beats in several places. Laura Snapes’ profile of the band in The Guardian reveals a lot about the tension that occurred during its recording. It doesn’t just sound like a St. Vincent production; while it’s less slick than her recent music, it feels like a full-fledged melding of the minds.
The title track is a departure for the band that still remains fairly adventurous. It throws together a metallic clang reminiscent of Einstürzende Neubauten, dissonant synthesizers, feedback, and vocal harmonies singing “the center won’t hold.” Two thirds of the way through, guitars finally kick in and it sounds like a more typical Sleater-Kinney song. Maybe its placement as the album’s opener suggests the band’s feeling that their music had to change. It’s followed by “Hurry On Home,” which has become the first Sleater-Kinney song ever to get commercial radio airplay. It could have been a New Wave hit circa 1980, with keyboards swooping in and out of the mix, a booming beat, and direct hooks.
Sleater-Kinney’s move isn’t exactly unprecedented. Recently, U.S. Girls’ “In a Poem Unlimited” and Priests’ “The Seduction of Kansas” couched leftist sentiments in a sound closer to Talking Heads or Blondie. Earlier this year, Sharon van Etten’s “Remind Me Tomorrow” went for an ‘80s arena-rock sound that departed from radio fare of the period only by incorporating squelchy analog synthesizer. In fact, it’s pretty trendy for indie rock artists to move away from guitars and towards electronics and the dancefloor right now. But Sleater-Kinney have never before hinted at such an inclination.
While “Hurry On Here” and “The Dog/ The Body” go for hooks, others, like “Ruins,” build up complex textures. Tucker and Brownstein (both of whom are bisexual and were once a couple) continue to mix their voices and guitars together. At the album’s best, it combines fuzzed-out guitars with a more pop-oriented sensibility. While “Broken,” a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford, mixes overtly political lyrics (“she stood up for us/ she testified”) with a description of emotional trauma (“I’m breaking in two ‘cause I’m broken inside”), Sleater-Kinney use a candy-colored surface to hide anger and bitterness. “Bad Dance” suggests “if the world is ending now, let’s dance the bad dance we’ve been rehearsing our whole lives” in a Trump-era update on the sentiments of Prince’s “1999.” “The Future Is Here” describes a life of alienated labor and loneliness.
But Weiss’ playing along with programmed beats throughout shows why she might be unhappy with Sleater-Kinney’s current direction. The band’s sound was more unusual than it first appeared: they’ve never used a bassist (although Tucker and Brownstein downtuned their guitars), so Weiss was its entire rhythm section. Like Keith Moon in The Who, her drumming frequently acted as the band’s lead instrument. The paradox of “The Center Won’t Hold” is that it’s an extremely good album that doesn’t sound much like Sleater-Kinney.
SLEATER-KINNEY | “The Center Won’t Hold” | Mom + Pop Records | Drops Aug. 16 | sleater-kinney.com