I didn’t feel much for Sleater-Kinney until I read the autobiography of their co-founder Carrie Brownstein and realised how neurotic they were. Why does that always make people so much more likeable? They had group therapy as a band, with two female therapists (“We became a ten-legged lover working through our issues”). When they temporarily broke up, Brownstein was so sad she did 100 hours voluntary service in a dog sanctuary. The famous liberal arts school she attended in the Pacific North West – Evergreen State College, the seat of Riot Grrrl – sounds like an awful place to come into adulthood: “the town equivalent of a wink”. Brownstein’s latter-day job as co-writer and star of the TV sitcom Portlandia satirised a life lived at one hipster-remove, but like Liz Phair, another woman in the once-male landscape of Nineties rock, she admits that her motivation to be a musician came entirely from her “desperation” to be on the inside of the circle.
[See also: Who is St Vincent?]
Sleater-Kinney are a classic rock band, really – one of their turning points was supporting Pearl Jam in huge stadiums in 2003. The more mainstream they’re allowed to be, the more fun they are to experience – their poppy millennium album All Hands On The Bad One is all jingly-jangly, kinetic, tribal Sixties surfer-girl joy. Ultimately the group therapy didn’t work and their dynamo drummer Janet Weiss left two years ago, saying she “no longer felt a creative equal”. You suspect that if one of you departs, the others make an effort to show they’re OK without you – accounting, perhaps, for the mega-presence of heavy drums on their new album Path of Wellness (“High In The Grass” features what can only be described as a drum circus) and the liberal use of the cowbell.
St Vincent produced their last album, but Brownstein and co-founder Corin Tucker did this one on their own. There is poppy, Siouxsie-ish neurosis on the title track, with its refrain of “you can never love me enough” – a sense of twosome intensity that fits a band now down to its original pairing and writing in a year of global claustrophobia. The single “Worry With You” – with its snake-like riff and a rappy verse that sounds oddly like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – is accompanied by a touching video of two girls living and loving together in a too-small house. It’s been a year of violent protests in Portland where the band are based, and these stories are there in “Bring Mercy” (“How did we lose our city, rifles running through our streets?”) and in the spiky “Down The Line” (“It’s not the summer we were promised, it’s the summer we deserved”). But Sleater-Kinney bring a battering ram of companionship against it all, and that’s where the music really touches you: “If it’s coming for us, darling, take my hand and dance me own the line”. “Complex Female Characters” has had a bit of attention in the press, aimed at men who claim to admire powerful women as long as they don’t have to deal with them in real relationships. But as a satire it feels a bit dated – like it should have come out a few years ago, around the time the film world identified the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Essentially, Path of Wellness is an album dripping in tunes and musical warmth and wearing its messages lightly. Brownstein, once voted one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, plays some delicious harmonics at the end of “Shadow Town”, while the psychedelic “Tomorrow’s Grave” features a mysterious six-armed drummer. It is a record full of the heavy-but-bright sound Sleater-Kinney do best. If you don’t have time to listen to it, flick to “Favourite Neighbour”, whose chanty chorus just sound fantastically fun to sing. Brownstein and Tucker’s double-tracked vocals, so energising somehow, are the musical motif of a united front.