Sometimes titles tell us more about where an album came from than what it’s about.
Take The Hot Rock, for instance, which references a diamond. Diamonds are, as we know, precious stones created out of pressure. Duh, right? Well, judging where Sleater-Kinney was in 1999, it’s hard to believe the band itself didn’t cave in to pressure. The group’s self-titled debut, 1996’s Call the Doctor, and 1997’s Dig Me Out became benchmarks of ’90s rock music. Coming in the valley after the flannel-clad mountain of grunge, these records got saddled with some idea that the band could “save” rock and roll, whatever the hell that means. And yes, they are great and lasting records — Dig Me Out especially is one of the all-time great rock albums — but following up that one-two punch would be hard enough without everyone crying “savior” all the damn time.
But that wasn’t all. Sleater-Kinney were also the poster children for “women in rock and roll.” I put it in quotes because that’s how it seemed, a mixture of condescending suprise (these girls can rock?) and overly gender-specific praise (these girls can rock!). Perhaps their mere presence in rock music was partially political — rock music is a dude-fest, admittedly — but Sleater-Kinney is hardly defined as an all-girl rock band. Instead, time has proven the group as one of the best rock bands of their generation, period. Few were as good for as long as they were, so to hell with the idea that there need be any qualifying — gender-driven or otherwise — of their extensive skills.
So they were supposed to save rock and roll, and they were supposed to represent women in rock and roll (just writing it feels condescending), and they had just made a nearly perfect record. So what do they do? How do they make this diamond?
By ignoring all that pressure. The most politically charged element of Sleater-Kinney was always their defiance, their clear-eyed vision for what they wanted to do. The dual blades of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s guitars, Janet Weiss’s intricate, tight percussion (she joined up before Dig Me Out), Brownstein’s harsh wailing voice and Brownstein’s sly, cutting one. It was a perfect dose of enegy, a full-throated “get on board or get the fuck out of the way.” They belted it out from song to song and that was why we loved them.
And somewhere deep in that defiance was a respect for the audience. They respected us enough to not worry about us, to not get painted in a corner by the riot-grrl fanatics or the narrow-minded punks. They branched out always, and so when it came time for them to “save” rock music in 1999, they gave us a nuanced, moody, and intricate record in The Hot Rock. On the cover they’re hailing a cab, not even looking at us. The inside photo shows them in a bus (or train?) station, again looking away from the camera. They’re off on their own trip here; this isn’t about us. Because the other thing about that diamond, with all its pressure definining it? It’s stolen. Sleater-Kinney swiped our expectations and made the most curious and quiet record in their discography. And it’s flat-out brilliant.
Brownstein and Tucker leave the thrashing power chords behind here, mostly. Instead, it’s a tangle of stringy riffs. The high spins of one circling the linear notes of the other on “Start Together” or “Burn, Don’t Freeze.” One echoes the other on the title track, or pushes forward the propulsive hooks of “End of You.” In a lot of ways, this is every bit the fierce sound its predecessors were. “Banned from the End of the World” is bursting with energy, Tucker belts it out on “One Song for You” with the same wild abandon we’ve always heard. The Hot Rock is, undoubtedly, a rock album, and it comes with the requisite quick punches of sound that hit fast and hard.
But how Sleater-Kinney gets there this time is different. This isn’t the lean clash of distortion Dig Me Out was. This is a subtler record, as interested in negative space as it is in tight riffage. It’s an album awash in confusion, from those tangled guitars to the chaotic way Brownstein and Tucker often sing over each other. The title track glides on moody, humble riffs and a surprisingly spare, spacious beat from Weiss. Over that, Brownstein and Tucker sing two narratives at once. The story of a love-driven heist is confused with emotion, Brownstein ready to jump into crime while Tucker hesitates as she feels love drifting away. Both have their doubts, but it explores two poles — one charging forward on blind hope, the other retreating to heartache.
It’s a fitting title track, since that overcast feel and confusion weave through the entire record. “Don’t Talk Like” is slow and churning, the guitars just barely distorted, but focused on low-end and minor keys. “Get Up” is a brave choice for a lead single and a blatant sign that the band was following their own muse. It’s spoken-word verses and the wonky chunks of drum and guitar that pass for a chorus is a jarring shift from the band’s usual streamlined attack, but it works in the setting of the album.
“The Size of Your Love” is the other big risk on The Hot Rock, and it too pays off huge. It’s a heartbreaking tale of hospital-room love. “Our love is the size of the tumors inside us,” Brownstein sings to start the song, and if that doesn’t seem subtle, the pain of the rest of the song is muted and affecting. Seth Warren’s violin adds a layer of hurt to the song, and this more restrained emotion marked a huge leap forward for the band. They could knock us out with volume, but here they club us with a trembling whisper.
Warren adds similar layers to the more up-tempo “Memorize Your Lines,” shadowing Tucker’s already devastating vocals as she pleads to know “Tell me what are we fighting for? Do you want me here? Do you know for sure?” The emotions get deeper as the record moves forward, the tension of each song’s restraint builds up, all this hurt and yearning swells in the space around these moody riffs, and we get left with “A Quarter to Three.” The last song on the record sounds buoyant at first, the riffs bright and producer Roger Moutenot’s (of Yo La Tengo’s Painful) slide guitar adds a warm haze to the procedings. That bright feeling doesn’t last though, as it falls back into that bittersweet confusion. The laid-back, surf-rock feel melts into something murkier as Tucker insists “There’s nothing left for me to feel.”
Of course there isn’t by the end of The Hot Rock, because though the rock and roll may be muted here, Sleater-Kinney still leaves it all on the table. It’s the most clear confirmation of the power of the interplay of Brownstein and Tucker’s vocals, and one of the most varied and surprising performances we’ve heard from Weiss, one of the great rock drummers working. It’s not what people expected. It’s not built on sheer volume and rock aggression. It’s not an album that will save rock and roll. But Sleater-Kinney did the right thing: They did exactly what they wanted. Rock and roll can save itself, and if it doesn’t who the hell cares? There are still albums out there like The Hot Rock that’ll save us instead.