REVIEW: Sleater-Kinney’s “The Center Won’t Hold”

I’ve already written about my fears for this album. In short, I’ve been worried that producer St Vincent, who I’ve never been a fan of anyway, might just screw things up completely for this band. I honestly did wish that this was unfounded, and long-standing drummer Janet Weiss left the band recently for reasons other than her dislike of a new direction in the sound.

But no.

I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that this album is the weakest thing this band have ever done, and I think St Vincent deserves the blame. Hear me out, because even if you’re a St Vincent fan, perhaps you’ll agree at least that this band doesn’t suit her style or delivery.

Overall, it’s the sterility of Vincent’s recent musical affectation that is so grating across The Center Won’t Hold. Have a listen to Los Ageless or Masseduction and then tell me I’m wrong about her digital control over that sound. Then think about mapping that over Sleater-Kinney’s mania, and imagine what you’d get…

The opening, title track sums up the problem perfectly, so let me go into some detail.

SK’s typical frenzy is locked into a pretty tired “industrial” double beat of metal strikes, for the first two minutes. This quickly became a dull proposition, but I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on first listen, as a scene-setter for a colder, darker version of the band perhaps, soon to be followed by a blast of their usual unhinged energy.

As promised, it seemed, at 2:06 the repetition is broken by a feedback tone that I actually quite like, mostly because it suggests a refreshing shift in dynamics coming up at any moment. The next seven seconds, as the flat chant of “the centre won’t hold” cycles over this squeal as it keeps going, looked promising – perhaps the dull opening would be placed in sharp relief?

But when the blast of distortion hits, it’s a completely sanitized version of what SK can usually deliver. The “distortion” is nothing of the sort – it’s boxy and polished until it’s just as flat as the monotone vocals before it.

No amount of speed can salvage the song from this kind of production, and this sums up the biggest of this album’s several big problems (I could get into the coy whoops of vocal harmonies dropped in all over the place for example – e.g. Can I go on – but you haven’t got all day).

St Vincent has managed, in quite a feat, to kill off the visceral sound of one of the most visceral guitar bands ever.

I’m so sorry to see that it drove the incomparable Weiss away from her bandmates of so many years, but who can blame her. Just listen to the drumming on Reach Out (both the tone and the beat), if you want to see how the mighty have fallen. I’ve just gone from not being a fan of St Vincent’s work in general, to wondering if she’s some kind of 21st century Yoko.

The only good thing to come out of this is a cautionary tale about choosing your producer wisely. It’s nice to see a great example of their power over the final product, but I would have preferred an example that didn’t involve taking a great band, and making them so mediocre.

Words by Nick Parker.

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