REVIEW: Sleater-Kinney Isn’t Dead

Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker carry on as Sleater-Kinney despite drummer Janet Weiss’s departure. Press photo by Nikko Lamere.

Sleater-Kinney is dead. Long-live Sleater-Kinney.

I kept thinking these words as two-thirds of my favorite band played Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre last Wednesday. Sprung from the riot grrrl movement, powerhouse trio Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss had become known as one of the best rock bands on the planet, until Weiss abruptly left the band after recording their latest album, The Center Won’t Hold. They’d just begun promoting it, a tour loomed… and then there were two.

I first encountered Sleater-Kinney in 2002. I was a sophomore polisci major in a boring, rural Midwestern city, listening to the university radio station while working in the dingiest gas station imaginable, when I heard “Sympathy,” from their most recent record at the time, One Beat. The post-911 album paired impassioned, unapologetically shrill and howling vocals with precise, catchy guitar riffs and cleverly written songs on topics like wars for oil, thriving through discrimination and patriotic dissent.

Sleater-Kinney sounded how I felt in a way I’d never heard women emote. I was in love. After a few years of fangirling – and realizing I wasn’t skilled or dedicated enough to play most of their songs on guitar – I saw Sleater-Kinney in a bar following the release of 2005’s The Woods. After a nine-year hiatus that ended in 2015, I saw them again at a much larger concert hall in Milwaukee (with Lizzo opening) on the No Cities to Love tour. Each performance was mesmerizing and impassioned. This was my band.

When news broke in January that Sleater-Kinney’s ninth record would be produced by musical genius Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, I – and everyone else – rejoiced. Cue choirs of angels. This album, I posited, would make everything in the post-Trump era more bearable. The influence of of Clark’s arty, edgy, experimental rock on Sleater-Kinney’s indefatigable brand of smart poppy punk… What could go wrong? Well… fuck.

In mid-June, the band played its first single, “Hurry on Home,” on Jimmy Fallon. The performance had a dark vibe with costumes, makeup and stage design more reminiscent of St. Vincent’s self-titled record tour than Sleater-Kinney. (Suspiciously, the video of the performance is no longer available.) On July 1, six weeks ahead of the record’s release date, drummer Janet Weiss announced she was leaving the band. The sisterhood-vibey video for “Get Up” flashed in my mind and I cried in disbelief. I had already bought tickets to see them in Milwaukee. I didn’t listen to the new record for fear of being let down.

And then I heard it live last week. Initially, the palpable disconnect between the remainder of the original band and the audience created an air of uncertainty. Touring musicians outnumbered founders on the stage: drummer Angie Boylan of Aye Nako; No Cities touring guitarist Katie Harkin; Toko Yasuda, St. Vincent touring musician and member of defunct electro-indie rockers Enon, on keyboards and percussion. Despite a strong, strobe-light heavy opening with “The Center Won’t Hold,” the audience didn’t recognize or wasn’t excited enough to cheer as new songs began. But intros to tracks from other records were met with applause and dancing. Early in the show, Brownstein noted with a smile, “We know you’re going to dance to songs from [1997 record] Dig Me Out,” before cautioning people in the steep balcony to shimmy with care. I teared up a little when my concert buddy ran out for a drink. Not until about 10 songs in, when they played “Ironclad” from 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One followed by Dig Me Out track “One More Hour” did my inner turmoil relent as I began to feel more at home.

The crowd eventually warmed up too, as more “oldies” were played along with some of the more rockin’ tracks from Center, like “Bad Dance” and “RUINS.” The set and two encores were inarguably dynamic. Yet they passed over three early records worth of material: The Hot Rock, Call the Doctor and 1995’s self-titled LP. Nevertheless, the band and the audience warmed up to each other for an overall excellent event on a tour that was undoubtedly difficult minus a founding member. I left the show feeling partial catharsis. I’d danced and sang along to some of my favorite songs and simultaneously processed some emotions (probably not all Sleater-Kinney related).

A few days later, I found myself singing tracks from the new record, like the semi-boppy “Can I Go On” and the title track. True to the riot grrrl ethos, Sleater-Kinney remains a political band – “Broken” is a reaction to Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony a year ago. “The Future is Here” is about life in the digital age. We’re living in an unprecedentedly bleak time and tone of Center reflects that.

It’s undeniable that Clark’s signature style is all over The Center Won’t Hold, and though it still sounds like a Sleater-Kinney record, it probably was not the funnest record to drum on, particularly for someone of Janet’s caliber. The band I knew and loved has changed. And I still love them – but less in that impassioned, idealistic college manner and in a wiser, more experienced, mid-30s kind of way.

Sleater-Kinney (obviously) is a band that’s personal for me. Bands can feel like family and friends – especially when their music comes to you at times when you don’t feel connected to or even have close loved ones. Musicians’ arty renderings of their energy and emotions can help you sort through and understand your own, helping you connect to yourself in the process. And bands, just like people, are allowed to change, even if it’s uncomfortable for their loved ones.

When Janet left Sleater-Kinney, it felt like my aunties were in a fight. These women were and are role models for me, particularly since I was actively discouraged by lame guys from making music as a teenager because of my gender. Initially, I felt like St. Vincent broke Sleater-Kinney. But actually, she challenged them and their fans to try something new. We grow through how we handle change and challenges. Now more than ever, I respect Carrie, Corin and Janet for doing what they do – or deciding not to do it – unapologetically and with heart.

Sleater-Kinney continues their tour through October and November; check their website for dates and locations.