By Sheeva Azma
This version of the band is less gritty and angry then back in the ’90s, but it is still identifiably anarchistic.
Path of Wellness is the first self-produced album by Sleater-Kinney in the band’s history. Founded in 1994 in Olympia, Washington, the group was formed by two riot grrrls: former Heavens to Betsy singer Corin Tucker and Excuse 17’s Carrie Brownstein. From 1996 to 2019, Sleater-Kinney also included Janet Weiss on backup vocals, drums, and harmonica.
The album stays true to what has become the accepted Sleater-Kinney sound: Tucker and Brownstein’s iconic vocals, rock-and-roll drums and guitar, lyrics that make you think, and the occasional danceable beat. This time around, the group engages with the difficult times in which we live.
This version of the band is less gritty and angry then back in the ’90s, but it is still identifiably anarchistic. The difference is that Sleater-Kinney is acknowledging its age: they have remained true to themselves and their sound but the tunes definitely reflect the passing of time. Fans will find Path of Wellness nostalgic — up to a point.
The album came out on June 11, the same day National Public Radio (NPR) held a listening party for Path of Wellness with Tucker and Brownstein. The NPR event was hosted by Raina Douris of World Cafe, who interviewed Tucker and Brownstein about the album.
“We wrote these songs on guitar, we wrote bass lines, there’s clarinet, and Wurlitzer [piano], and instruments that we were really excited to incorporate into the sound of the record,” Brownstein told Douris. “Hopefully it tells a story,” says Tucker: the album is “really tied to Portland last summer, and what was going on here for us.”
“We finished writing the album last summer, in Portland, and it was a really hectic time,” explained Tucker at the NPR listening party. She talked about the problems facing Portland residents at the time they were writing and recording the album: the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests for racial justice, and the Trump administration’s deployment of federal troops to the city. Wildfires added to the chaos by draping the city in a plume of smoke. “It felt pretty intense,” Tucker recalled. Going into the studio was “a refuge.” “Music,” Brownstein added, “is always a form of salvation.”
The album discusses the political turmoil of the time. “Bring mercy,” they sing on the track of the same name about dealing with the “modern enemies” of the pandemic era. At the NPR listening party, Tucker explained that the song is “close to a prayer or plea … saying we’re all humans, and we may completely disagree, but we can’t just be at war with each other. It’s crazy.”
Tucker’s call for unity — rather than anarchy — surprised me. Perhaps the original riot grrrls of the ’90s have mellowed out and, at an advanced age, they have found a new perspective on how to achieve political change. Kathleen Hanna, who is perhaps the most famous riot grrrl, sang endlessly about the futility of men for years — then married Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock in 2006. “White boy, don’t laugh, don’t cry, just die! I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you/Your whole f**** culture alienates me,” sang Hanna, the lead singer for Bikini Kill, on the 1992 track “White Boy.”
Riot grrrl’s origins lie in the ’70s and ’80s punk scene. Tucker, as part of Heavens to Betsy, played at the first riot grrrl event at the International Pop Underground Convention in Washington, DC, in August 1991. From there, the riot grrrl movement gained traction in Olympia, especially through the use of “zines,” or underground publications that criticized corporate culture and promoted feminism. Though riot grrrl now has an international following, it’s also been criticized for its lack of diversity. In 2015, Vice wrote about Black riot grrrls that were ignored by the movement.
On that note, Path of Wellness talks about racism in Portland. “Voices raised as a city breaks our heart,” sings Tucker on “Shadow Town.” The song alludes to the historically racist housing policies of the city: “Walk through shadow town, a red line drawn through our house.” Tucker may also be critiquing expansive discriminatory practices like redlining that have created barriers among minorities for access to services — from getting a mortgage or obtaining a credit card. Portland, according to Abete Genemo on the ArcGIS Storymaps website is the most gentrified city of the 50 major US cities.
NPR’s Douris brought up the lyrics to “Down the Line,” which are about the summer of 2020: “It’s not the summer we were promised, but the summer we deserve.” The song, Brownstein explained, actually deals with the loss of musical greats — “all the songs we will never hear … the words that will never be written…I wanted to celebrate the people who were gone musically.” Brownstein mentioned the death of Tom Petty while she held back tears.
These songs are just fine for a socially distanced, remote listening party, which is good, given that it might be a while until they can be heard at a large rock concert. (Brownstein told Douris that Sleater-Kinney will be performing on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts in the near future.) But Sleater-Kinney is raring to get beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and play the new songs live to a big crowd. Tucker’s looking forward to performing “Method”: “It’s got such a groove to it, it’s such a fun song to play.” Brownstein is pumped for “High in the Grass” or “Down the Line.” She also is psyched about the chorus on“Shadow Town” — which features Tucker on acoustic guitar — and a cowbell beat. “It’s gonna be great! It’s gonna be full, full cowbell,” she said to Douris.
Sheeva Azma is a freelance science writer and reporter. She is also founder of her own science writing company, Fancy Comma, LLC. She can be found on the web at www.sheevaazma.com and on Twitter @SheevaAzma.