Review Summary: “Dig Me Out-ta this mess”
Janet Weiss wasn’t Sleater-Kinney’s first drummer.
And if the band intends to continue past her exit from the band, she won’t be Sleater-Kinney’s last drummer. But if there was ever a red flag bigger or brighter than that one, I don't know what it is.
When Weiss said that she was leaving the band because it was “heading in a new direction,” it was obvious what she meant. Listening to The Center Won’t Hold is proof enough that Sleater-Kinney is going in a new direction. And it’s a bad one. Not because it’s “different,” not because of its influences, not because of its producer, not because of the label it released on, not because of its "politics", and not even because a member disagreed during it’s recording: it’s because that direction is bad. Sleater-Kinney oiled-up and shiny like a high-end car right off the assembly line, with every bell and whistle installed and no expense spared. It warms your seat as you drive, it makes an obnoxiously loud noise as you rev the engine, and best of all: it drives on autopilot. But the soul isn't there.
The Center Won’t Hold opens on an absolutely baffling note with the title track, a ploddingly-slow, pseudo-industrial track that suddenly breaks into one of the worst produced guitars one could ask for. Some might say that the latter invokes a bit of The Woods, in the sense that it causes tinnitus. Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that I wasn’t a big fan of that album’s production either. So what’s different here? Tone and lyrics. Sleater-Kinney were masters of creating an ecosystem for their songs to thrive in, making sure each song had a purpose to be there and had a message that the listener could latch onto. It didn't matter how simple that message actually was, it accented the music perfectly. This album sort of understands the “simple” portion of the equation, but forgets to nurture the song as a complex piece. What tone does this album have? What lyrics grab out at you and demand your attention? Not by repeating the same line over and over, but by naturally blending it into the song. The Center Won’t Hold loses this subtlety in a rush to be as pleasing to everyone as it can possibly be.
Songs like “Ruins” and “LOVE” almost feel like flashbacks to This Island-era Le Tigre, with synthesized vocals and drum machines galore. “Restless” is an alarmingly timid ballad that sounds like a Courtney Barnett throwaway (fitting, seeing as how they’re labelmates now). It’s hard not to compare these songs to artists past, since Sleater-Kinney seem content with sounding like anyone but themselves on this album. As if they’re trying to sneak into the club in their younger sister’s more trendy clothes.
And that’s what the entire album feels like: a band over the hill. Perhaps this is Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein seeing how far people are willing to go, how far they’re willing to stretch just to hear an inkling of that former glory. And for me, it's about this far.