Path of Wellness review: Sleater-Kinney finds the center again
The group's first album in 25 years without drummer Janet Weiss feels like a necessary retrenchment
On their last album, 2019's St. Vincent-produced The Center Won't Hold, Sleater-Kinney played around with instruments, sounds, and textures that had never dominated their songs before. What had been for over two decades a wiry roar built on two guitars - Carrie Brownstein's snaky, sneaky leads and Corin Tucker's rumbling baritone - and Janet Weiss's powerfully authoritative drums was squeezed into a clipped, buzzy groove with electronics at the wheel. It wasn't always a comfortable fit. The center didn't hold.
The new Path Of Wellness (out now, on Mom + Pop) sounds like a necessary retrenchment. While Sleater-Kinney haven't entirely abandoned the new tricks they've picked up (like a fuller integration of keyboards into their sound, from synthesizer and electric piano to clavinet and organ), the songs are still built fundamentally on the same core components that established their reputation and legacy. The catch is that one of those components is gone.
Wellness may not be the first Sleater-Kinney album without Weiss, but it is the first since her arrival solidified the band's Platonic-ideal lineup 25 years ago. And with her departure and replacement by a trio of drummers (led by Vince LiRocchi, with Brian Koch and Angie Boylan backing a couple of songs each) indicating that Sleater-Kinney remains in a still-unsettled state, it's easy to both want the album to be great and not want it to be great. Weiss was such a crucial, integral part of Sleater-Kinney - as Brownstein noted in her 2015 memoir, her arrival locked them in, lit their fuse, and exploded what they were capable of - that it feels like hoping the best rock band of the last quarter-century can sustain its greatness without her disrespects everything she contributed.
But the alternative is for Wellness to be a party that's over before it's begun, and Tucker and Brownstein, who were Sleater-Kinney before Weiss showed up, have no intention of giving up that easily. Opening track "Path Of Wellness" tightens up some of the better ideas from Center, with a jittery, jumpy faux-bassline, jagged drums, and a post-punk percussion clonk jingling through the background before Brownstein's guitar whooshes into frame. There's power in the snarl and groan of "Complex Female Characters," which captures the male gaze in Brownstein and Tucker archly intoning "You can't escape my imagination." And the sun-dappled "High in the Grass" gushes, lazily swerves, and swirls, while Koch's drums alone are sufficient to establish a mood of unease in "Shadow Town."
In fact, the new drummers, while not as assertive as Weiss, are doing some sharply conceived, exciting things throughout Wellness, particularly in the wound-up, decentralized "Tomorrow's Grave," where LiRocchi and Boylan together ride a wild surf and then slide right into a hazy, barbiturate groan without blinking. The problem (and something carried forward from Center) is that the drums recede into the background, instead of standing on equal footing with the other two pillars of the band. It's seemingly exacerbated by the self-production by Brownstein and Tucker, meaning that the three drummers are not only the newcomers of the group but remain outsiders who don't get final say in how their key instrumental parts sound in the mix.
Still, as evidenced by the albums that Wild Flag and the Corin Tucker Band spat out during Sleater-Kinney's 2006-2014 hiatus, Brownstein and Tucker are more than capable of producing terrific work even when dealing with changing lineups. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than on "Bring Mercy," which closes the album by alluding to a year of protests, political division, and violence; it's built on crisp, melancholy drum work, an electric piano, and a minor-key melody that all make it seem like a lost marvel of late-'70s/early-'80s pop, the best song Quarterflash never had it in them to pull off. Even despite the weight of expectation, reinvention, and continuity, Wellness marks a fine new chapter for Tucker and Brownstein. It may even be one for Sleater-Kinney. B+