In a sentence:
Representing a new beginning for one of alternative rock’s most venerated bands, Sleater-Kinney’s ‘Path Of Wellness’ deserves to be heard on its own terms.
Unusually for a band of such impeccable credentials with both fans and music writers, Sleater-Kinney find themselves in the position of needing to recoup some goodwill with their fanbase. Riot-grrl legends whose music has aged better than some of their contemporaries, the fractious recording process behind their 2019 album The Center Won’t Hold that was produced by St. Vincent led to the departure of long-time drummer Janet Weiss, a powerhouse percussionist whose unshowy punchiness was a key component of the trio’s knotty sound. Of course, the remaining duo of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker have a relationship that predated Weiss’s arrival for the band’s third album Dig Me Out, but it was only when she joined that Sleater-Kinney truly found their identity as a unit, going on that red-hot run that survived a decade-long hiatus into 2015’s comeback album No Cities To Love.
READ MORE: An Introduction to Sleater-Kinney
Annie Clark’s more pop-orientated approach seemed to open an insurmountable chasm for Weiss, who quit shortly before the release of The Center Won’t Hold, posing a challenge for Brownstein and Tucker regarding the future of Sleater-Kinney without their colleague. Many fans criticised that album on the basis that, for all its merits (and, really, there were many) it didn’t really sound like a S-K record. You could see their point. With Path Of Wellness, they make use of three different drummers (including touring member Angie Boylan) and neither double down on that approach, and nor do they retreat to their established sound. It’s a stratagem that’s probably not going to make either faction of that particular debate happy, but it does leave us with another slightly odd but generally worth addition to the Sleater-Kinney canon.
The muted, drum-pad percussion that opens the album with title track ‘Path Of Wellness’ seems like a deliberate confrontation in this context, but it opens up the band’s sound to groove and rhythm. Taking turns at lead vocals in songs seemingly given over entirely to either Brownstein or Tucker – as opposed to the to-and-fro, both-at-once tension that characterised so much of their most celebrated work – in its best moments the album feels like a natural evolution of the Sleater-Kinney sound. The growling guitars of early album highlights ‘High In The Grass’ and the shimmering, sultry groove that gently propels ‘Worry With You’ along are contrasting approaches that both pay dividends. The ‘Blank Generation’-esque ‘Method’ has an enjoyable swing to it.
The sequence in the middle of the album from ‘Shadow Town’ to ‘Tomorrow’s Grave’ seems to lose momentum, however, seeing Brownstein and Tucker falling back on a familiar M.O. but without the ferocity and focus that so defined their classic work. Instead, this trio feels slightly by-numbers and lacking conviction, notwithstanding some enjoyably chunky bass and processed guitar on ‘Favorite Neighbor’. The compelling ‘Complex Female Characters’, in which Brownstein skewers the toxicity of men who go to huge lengths to try to demonstrate how modern and aware they are, and the brilliant ‘Down The Line’ rescue things, before Path Of Wellness ends on Tucker’s intriguingly unresolved note of ‘Bring Mercy’.
Depending on what you made of The Center Won’t Hold and the idea of Sleater-Kinney without Janet Weiss in general, you’ll likely feel that Path Of Wellness burnishes or bluntens the group’s sound. Equally, it’s an endeavour that represents a new beginning for one of alternative rock music’s greatest and most under-appreciated bands, and as such deserves to be heard on its own terms. While it’s too laid-back and restrained to truly be compared to one of their unimpeachable classics like Dig Me Out, there’s enough treasure on Path Of Wellness to keep hardcore fans interested and, maybe, attract some newcomers.(7/10) (Ed Biggs)
Listen to Path Of Wellness by Sleater-Kinney here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Angie Boylan, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, Ed Biggs, Mom + Pop, Path Of Wellness, review, Sleater-Kinney
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