“Sleater-Kinney?” sighed a weary friend when I told her what I’d be reviewing this week. “That’s the old, worthy, American girl-grunge band I’m meant to like to qualify as a proper feminist isn’t it… ” To which my reply is: No! Listening to Sleater-Kinney is categorically not a chore any woman has to add to her to-do list. Listening to Sleater-Kinney will make you laugh, dance and punch your way through the rest of the crap on it.
If (like a lot of Brits, apparently) you’ve missed them until now, there’s no urgent need to do your homework and go back to the (awesome) stuff the band been producing since the mid-Nineties. You can start right now because their 10th album, Path of Wellness, is spring-loaded with cool, smart, sneakily evolving tunes that bounce straight from the gut in a way that makes me want to repeatedly high-five my speakers. “I like those complex female characters/ But I want my women to go down easy,” they sing. “I wanna stay hooked and for you to tease me…”
Riot grrrls Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (both on guitar and vocals) formed the band back in 1994, taking their name from a local Washington Interstate exit. They mixed the frayed and muted grunge aesthetic with a love of the B-52s’ whooping fun and singalong melodies. Their wit, energy and musical muscularity made them an instant critical hit – even male critics like Robert Christgau noted that “while their same-sex one-on-ones aren’t exactly odes to joy, they convey a depth of feeling that could pass for passion”. Pass for? Ha! Yes, there was a band “hiatus” and they lost their excellent drummer Janet Weiss in 2019. She told Pitchfork she left because the “unique, incredible” connection between Tucker and Brownstein didn’t leave space for her as an equal partner. A shame. But fair enough.
The core duo (who once dated) have continued to make creative friction, from 1996’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” through 2005’s “Anger Makes Me a Modern Girl” to 2019’s “LOVE”. After the poppier sound of 2019’s St Vincent/Annie Clarke-produced The Center Won’t Hold, Path of Wellness is a more torn-and-frayed affair. Self-produced during the pandemic, the album captures the feel of two minds bouncing off each other (and, occasionally, the walls). At times, it’s squash-court tight. At others, there’s sudden space for a bit of messy thrash and the odd self-indulgent solo.
It opens with the title track, all taut, deep elastic bass and clattering percussion – “Do I seek approval? Is it something that I need?” – before shunting into the surprisingly folkily-sung “High in the Grass”. “Worry With You” – about the stresses and consultations of long-term relationships – has a great driving groove, if a slightly mall-friendly melody. Then there’s the excellent “Method” on which the duo address the emotional requirements of the 40-something woman. The artists say they’re capable of “Conversation, Sedation, Motivation, Hesitation, Imagination…” and ask: “Could you be a little softer with me? Could you be a little sweeter, maybe? I’m not asking you to smile, you’re not a f***ing child”.
“No Knives” finds Tucker (who has two children) reflecting, perhaps, on motherhood: “We’re here to serve you dinner/ Without using any knives”. If the slow-burning, acutely observed “Complex Female Characters” isn’t used on the outro to a crime drama this year then TV will be missing a trick. The duo keep their vocal powder dry as they flag the issue: “You’re too much of a woman now/ You’re not enough of a woman now.” They chuck the fury into their squalling fretwork.
Tucker and Brownstein are two of the coolest, most complex women in rock. Imagine Killing Eve in audio form. They’re still that kick-ass. That sexy. That much fun. Put this album on your to-listen list, pronto.