The Hot Rock
Reviewed by Steven Rubio
Thursday, March 11 1999, 9:23 PM
When speaking of Sleater-Kinney, one is tempted to call up the old saw about how if Sleater-Kinney didn't exist, someone would have to invent them. Their careers thus far live up to an indie mythos; their eccentric musical tics (two guitars/no bass, simultaneous singing of lyrics not always clearly connected to each other) add a cutting-edge experimentalism to their sound.
Sleater-Kinney's unapologetic but understated commitment to music made by women is both inspiring and encompassing of all fans. Corin Tucker's voice is still unique enough to scare away casual listeners while rewarding the faithful with its startling magnificence. Sleater-Kinney hardly needs to be any good. Merely existing as they do seems good enough.
Happily, Sleater-Kinney is far better than they have to be. They are, in fact, perhaps the best band of their era, as their new album, The Hot Rock, and their live performances demonstrate. The Hot Rock continues the tradition of great Sleater-Kinney albums, mixing the above-mentioned "tics" with a more reflective sound that is far from mellow but foregrounds the intelligent heartache of their lyrics.
For the most part, The Hot Rock avoids the powerful, punkish intensity that culminated in their third album, Dig Me Out, instead emphasizing the jagged anxiety of their counterpoint vocals and battling guitar lines. The vocals never harmonize, as if harmony were a remnant of oppressive musical forms of the past. But the seeming disparity in the vocals of Tucker and lead guitarist Carrie Brownstein is more apparent than real. Sleater-Kinney are never singing separate songs; they are only singing different versions of the same tune.
It sounds like a recipe for alienating post-modernity with two singers simultaneously demanding their own versions of reality. But with Sleater-Kinney, the rejection of harmony comes in the service of a greater need, to allow disparate but equal voices to share their realities together. In the context of a rock and roll band, with its own mythos of collective enterprise, these odd vocals become far more than mere tics. Rather, they help carry the sound of Sleater-Kinney beyond both the strictures of the girl-group past and the clunky-appealing camaraderie of rock and roll mythology. Sleater-Kinney create something new in the ashes of something old.
In fairness, the notion of equal voices in this band is complicated by the voice of Corin Tucker. One is hard pressed to think of any singer whose voice is the equal of hers. It is nearly impossible to describe; Tucker sounds like an untutored opera singer whose enormous voice is given over to emotional pop realities dressed in post-punk clothes. On stage, Tucker is somehow even more amazing in that she is mostly undemonstrative, even as her huge voice carries beyond the walls of the club onto the streets outside. Carrie Brownstein shines in the live element, as well, her love of the music apparent even as she smiles with a touch of mockery through standard rockstar moves.
Here again, the counterpoint between the onstage actions of Corin and Carrie enhances the music. Meanwhile, drummer Janet Weiss lays a useful and invigorating bottom. It is no surprise that the power of Sleater-Kinney's music took a great leap forward when Weiss joined the band for Dig Me Out. And in concert, Weiss is that rare drummer who is beautiful to watch as well as hear, the graceful rhythm of her drumming creating a cohesive visual statement that contrasts nicely with the more anxious interplay between Tucker and Brownstein.
The Hot Rock is not just more of the same, although it is always clearly Sleater-Kinney. It takes a bit longer to sink in than Dig Me Out or Call the Doctor, but as with all their albums, The Hot Rock rewards patience and intelligent listening. And still sounds great when all you want to do is play it loud and bounce around to the music.
The Hot Rock is a Kill Rock Stars release.