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The Endurance of Sleater-Kinney

After lineup changes, hiatuses and even some prying fans, the Portland indie rock band remains powerful
Photo by Nikko LaMere

Earlier this year another music-nerd friend of mine proposed an interesting head-scratcher of a question on social media: What band that you know of has gone the longest without any lineup changes? R.E.M. was one band with an impressive run, having gone 17 years before drummer Bill Berry eventually left the group. U2 more than doubles that at 43 years without any replacement or absent members, and until last year’s disbandment, Rush had an outstanding run of 44 years as the trio of Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee and Neal Peart. (Nobody mentioned ZZ Top, but they’ve gone a remarkable 50 years without any swaps.)

I was at the ready with a dark horse answer, however: Sleater-Kinney. For 22 years, the Portland-based indie rock trio comprised Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. And together, they were an unstoppable force, a band made stronger by the musical chemistry between these three women, and whose presence projected a unified front. Technically, several of those years were a long hiatus, but the band never officially broke up, and to hear them together on a song like “Entertain” from 2005’s The Woods was to hear a band at their most powerful. As they sing in harmony on 2015’s “Surface Envy,” “We win, we lose, only together do we make the rules.”

Then, earlier this year, Janet Weiss quit. Bands replace their drummers (and bassists, guitarists, sometimes even vocalists) all the time, and it might have been naïve to expect Sleater-Kinney to remain the same core trio for another decade, but it still stung a little. Especially since the decision to leave the band came around the time of the release of their new album, The Center Won’t Hold, which was produced by art pop iconoclast St. Vincent and featured some of the band’s most atypical arrangements and production. It still sounds like Sleater-Kinney, but there are moments when that sound is fed through electronic filters and given some strange aesthetic effects. The timing was unfortunate—people on social media speculated that Weiss wasn’t happy with the changes in the band’s sound, and that’s why she left. But how are any of us to know? Some people even went so far as to blame St. Vincent’s Annie Clark for “breaking up Sleater-Kinney”, which is neither fair nor true. Sometimes, people just need a change.

Brownstein went further in detail on Instagram when more people began to ask about Weiss leaving the group: “what am I supposed to say? She left. We asked her to stay. We tried. It’s hard and sad…Her playing on this record is amazing and she’s raved about this album to us and to Annie. But we have to keep looking to the future.” And on The Center Won’t Hold, that’s exactly what they do, updating what a Sleater-Kinney album sounds like as another decade flips over on the calendar. It remains true to what the band does, while opening a door into new sounds and approaches, keeping the band alive even when the people or things that make up that band eventually change.

The same kind of ferocious youth and intensity of an album like 1997’s Dig Me Out is an unrealistic expectation from a band more than 20 years later. People grow and change. And as we undergo that kind of growth and maturity, it’s only fair to extend that space and courtesy to the musicians we listen to. It’s OK if not every fan warms to The Center Won’t Hold so quickly, or if some people are disappointed that one of the musicians they’ve grown familiar with has taken a different path after so much time. But Tucker and Brownstein are still going, still using music as a force against the weight of the world, and though it doesn’t all sound like it once did, it’s still resonant, powerful. Sleater-Kinney aren’t the same band that they once were, but I’d rather they take those risks, missteps and all, if it means they’ll still end up somewhere interesting and exciting. As they grow and evolve, I’m excited to follow.


November 12

Observatory North Park

Other Recommended Shows This Week

Halloween at The Whistle Stop (October 31, Whistle Stop Bar):  It wouldn’t be Halloween without a good costumed rock ‘n’ roll party. Various members of notable local bands will be participating in a night of covers of songs by The Cure. And full disclosure—I am too! Even if I weren’t however, this would be at the top of my list of shows to see this week. It’ll be a super-fun goth extravaganza.

Dinosaur Jr. (November 1, Observatory North Park): I’ve heard a lot of people describe Dinosaur Jr. as the loudest band they’ve ever seen, and having seen them once myself, yeah—they’re pretty loud! But that’s not necessarily the entirety of what makes the Massachusetts band great. Amid the wall of fuzz and fiery guitar work from frontman J Mascis are some great melodies, big hooks and one of the best grunge-ish bands just hovering under the mainstream.

Soda Bar 10-Year Anniversary w/ Cults, Weatherbox (November 1-2, Soda Bar): One of my favorite venues in San Diego celebrates its 10th anniversary with a pair of special back-to-back shows featuring two headlining sets by Cults, plus Mrs. Magician’s Jacob Turnbloom, Weatherbox and more. Rock out and raise a glass to toast the longevity of a great home for live music.

Dia de los Deftones (November 2, Petco Park): I happened to see Deftones earlier this year at The Cure’s Pasadena Daydream festival, and they still sound great after more than two decades. But the other big reason to head to this festival is to catch Belgian trio Brutus, who are my new favorite band, and whose new album Nest is a must-hear from 2019.

The Endurance of Sleater-Kinney

Photo by Nikko LaMere

By Jeff Terich

Jeff Terich is the music critic behind the blog The Setlist. His writing has been published in Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily, American Songwriter, Fodor's and Vinyl Me Please.

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