Sleater-Kinney, “The Center Won’t Hold” (Mom + Pop)

In the midst of Sleater-Kinney’s latest album, Corin Tucker sings ominously about a world in which humans feel increasingly disconnected from, well, everything. But the song’s refrain might also apply to her band’s new music: “The future’s here and we can’t go back.”

Though Sleater-Kinney is one of the defining rock bands of the past two decades, it plotted a new course on its ninth studio album. The trio telegraphed its ambitions by hiring art-rocker St. Vincent as a producer.

St. Vincent helped shift Sleater-Kinney’s approach to arranging: a studio-as-instrument approach instead of rock-band-playing-together-in-real-time. Singer-guitarists Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss assembled an album that’s more like a pastiche than a performance, brimming with electronic percussion and textures, guitars that sound like violins, and keyboards that sound like guitars.

The title track announces the new direction with clanging percussion, murky atmospherics and eerie vocal interplay. In its second half, the song leaps into a full-on rock rampage, anchored by Weiss’ drums, a juxtaposition of the new-old Sleater-Kinney that’s thrillingly executed.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t nearly as accomplished. Sleater-Kinney at its best always suggested a triangle, an agitated musical conversation among strong-minded equals. The production on “The Center Won’t Hold” disrupts that balance.

Whereas the title track tries to meld the band’s strengths into a new sonic context, much of the rest mutes the animated dialogue between the voices of Brownstein and Tucker. And Weiss, one of the best rock drummers on the planet, is even less of a factor, her essential role diminished as both a driving force in the arrangements and as an astute, agile commentator. Little wonder that after the album was completed, Weiss quit the band on July 1.

The album front-loads a few catchy pop songs, perfectly acceptable placeholders but nothing to rival the peak moments on classic Sleater-Kinney albums. Even the band’s post-hiatus reunion, 2015’s “No Cities to Love,” packed more wallop.

“Hurry on Home” and “Reach Out” play like bookends on lust with hooky refrains, “Can I Go On” flirts with doo-wop backing vocals amid its reverberating electro-rock soundscape, and “The Future Is Here” blends melody and foreboding. But some of the experimentation verges on self-parody: the goth melodrama of “Ruins,” the giddy gimmickry of “Love,” the disco tropes of “Bad Dance.” A lounge ballad arrangement undercuts the MeToo heartache underlying “Broken.”

Much of “The Center Won’t Hold” doesn’t sound like the old Sleater-Kinney, which is precisely the point. Brownstein and Tucker prefer to go charging into the future, but at the expense of some of the very attributes that made them so compelling in the first place.

GREG Kot, Chicago Tribune


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