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Choice Tasters Lounge w/ Jersey Dan

CD of The Week

Week of 8/19/19

    Sleater-Kinney - The Center Won't Hold (Mom + Pop)

    "Why do good things never wanna stay?"

    An iconic refrain from one of Sleater-Kinney's first truly iconic songs, this question has proven strangely prescient over the course of their career. It summed up a lot of fans' sentiments when Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss announced their "indefinite hiatus" back in 2006 following the release and subsequent tour of The Woods, an album that all but demolished any previous preconceptions of what a Sleater-Kinney album could sound like. It was also the first lyric that sprung to mind for me this summer after the reveal of a more permanent, and painful, ending for them: Weiss, Sleater-Kinney's legendary long-time drummer, was leaving the band, citing their "new direction" as the reason for her decision. It was a shocking, crushing blow that instantly changed the conversation around their newest and sure-to-be most divisive album, The Center Won't Hold. It's going to be impossible for many people to hear The Center without the shadow of Janet's departure coloring perceptions, and that's a shame. While obviously transitional, it's also an often-transcendent effort that once again destroys preconceptions of what this band can (or should) sound like while paving plenty of possible paths forward for the band's remaining duo.

    It's easy to credit a lot of that to the production, courtesy of alt-pop auteur Annie "St. Vincent" Clark, or blame it in the case of more fair-weather fans who instantly turned on both Clark and Brownstein with a disturbing amount of gusto. While it's easy to hear Clark's influence around the edges of the album in its clean lines and meticulous layers, this isn't the case of a producer taking over the reins. It's also not a case of one member of the band taking them over, as many people have jumped to assume. Once again prescient - even down to the title - The Center Won't Hold differs from its predecessors in how it was constructed in separation. This is the first time that Brownstein and Tucker have written songs while physically isolated from each other and the difference is palpable. There is a clear, nearly even divide between Carrie songs and Corin songs now, and the interplay between the two is sorely missed. It's easy to hear why people who came to love the band through the conflicting but complementary vocal melodies of songs like "Call the Doctor" might be left wanting at first.

    That said, Tucker and Brownstein remain as sharp and shrewd songwriters as ever, and while they may have worked separately, they both continue to create smart, moving songs about the need for connection. Specifically, Brownstein wrote songs about lust, and she sings them with a swagger we've never heard from her before. It suits her. Tucker's end of things often takes a more longing approach, or lamenting, in the case of knockout closer "Broken" about Christine Blasey Ford's heroic testimony against Brett Kavanaugh last year. That approach translates to how she sings them as well. While she proves herself more than still capable of her trademark earth-shattering wails in the coda of the title track, she sticks to a more measured, nuanced delivery for the remainder of her efforts. It suits her as well.

    The duo's combined confidence and conviction serve as the anchor for the multitude of sonic left turns and about-faces throughout the album, their most diverse and experimental since 2002's similarly expansive One Beat. The aforementioned title track erupts with an industrial grunge fury, the likes of which haven't been heard since the era of late Cobain and early Reznor. "Reach Out" blends bubbling Austra verses with booming Depeche Mode choruses, while "The Future is Here" pulses to life like peak Kate Bush. Before any purists blanch, rest assured that there is still plenty of the old Sleater-Kinney threaded throughout the new. "Restless" is another signature Brownstein ballad in the vein of "Modern Girl" and "The Size of Our Love", while the towering, Tucker-led "RUINS" sounds like a terrifying sequel to "Fade" from 2015's No Cities to Love. Elsewhere, "LOVE" updates and improves upon the new wave shimmy of Dig Me Out standout "Dance Song '97", and the beautifully batshit "Bad Dance" sounds like "What's Mine Is Yours" if it was covered by The B-52's in the Upside Down.

    You may notice I've gone this long without mentioning Weiss's contributions and that's because you can kind of hear where and why she may have felt underused. For as dynamic and kinetic as these new songs are, that meticulousness in the production leaves little room for spontaneity, and sadly, we'll never know if that would have changed in a live setting now. The center did not, in fact, hold for this one and the debate will likely go on for quite a while over whether Sleater-Kinney's big swings are worth such a significant loss. It's a fair debate to have, and there will be no easy answers. All we know for sure is that Carrie and Corin aren't going anywhere yet, and there is more than enough evidence on this album that they still have plenty to say, with or without Janet.

    The truth is some things you lose, some things you give away, and it would be foolish for fans to give away this band and all that they still have to offer simply because they lost one member. Best to proceed with cautious optimism and treat this like a new beginning, not an ending. Sleater-Kinney, as we knew and loved them, are dead. Long live, and hopefully love, the new Sleater-Kinney.

    The new Sleater-Kinney, with an as-yet-unannounced drummer, return to Philadelphia at The Fillmore on October 27th.

    Review by Rob Huff

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