Review Summary: Path of weariness
Sleater-Kinney’s newest effort, “Path of Wellness”, seems constantly in conflict between wanting the slickness of major-label pop rock and the harder punk-influenced style that brought them acclaim on records such as 2005’s “The Woods”. However, because the album tries to have it both ways, it ends up sounding indecisive and sadly generic. I’m not sure if the absence of former drummer Janet Weiss is to blame or if the eventual decline in musical quality that comes with a band’s age has reached Sleater-Kinney, but something seems genuinely amiss with this collection of songs.
The title track starts competently enough, with layered vocals riding atop a rhythmically complex drumbeat and a tastefully restrained electric piano backing. Prominent electric guitars enter the instrumentation near the 1:30 mark, adding a moderate sense of urgency to the track. Unfortunately, it never fully delivers on the climax that the guitars suggest and instead peters out with the instrumentation of the intro with a somewhat tacky synth lead. The track’s real shortcoming, though, is in its confusing lyricism – the titular refrain suggests positivity, though the confusing choice of words in the verses seem to blunt any attempts at inferring meaning from the song.
“High in the Grass” exemplifies the aforementioned conflict between amped-up rock and cleanly-produced pop that mires the record. This song kicks off with uncomfortably over-compressed guitars that build for nearly 20 seconds before giving way to a simplistic and unexciting instrumental palette for the verse. Corin Tucker’s falsetto in the verses sounds quite awkward; while not strained, it sounds incongruous with the rest of the song. The chorus manages to be forgettable, with a fuzzy guitar backing not quite adding the aggression it seems to imply.
“Worry with You” does not fare much better, for many of the same reasons. While it is certainly an improvement over the two preceding songs, it succeeds mainly because it serves as a reminder of the band’s older material instead of as an indicator of progression. “Method” is one of the weakest tracks on the record – the vocal delivery sounds particularly off here, seemingly in search of a weak melody. Except for Brownstein’s and Tucker’s vocals (I can’t discern which of the two takes lead) I wouldn’t otherwise be able to discern that this song was by Sleater-Kinney. “Shadow Town” is a marked course correction, and its guitar work is decent relative to that of the other songs on the album.
The rest of the album remains in the same gear; beyond the uninsightful commentary of “Complex Female Characters”, nothing quite sticks. Ironically, after listening to “Path of Wellness”, I came away with an impression more suggesting of a dying ember instead of a positive return to form. Nothing on the album is particularly bad (except maybe “Method”), but even the best songs on it still pale in comparison to the band’s older work. The cleanly-produced sound of this and the preceding record don’t hold up, and hopefully the band’s next effort will course-correct back to a rawer sound. In the meantime, though, the band seems to remain on an artistically unwell path.