J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Return Trip: Sleater-Kinney - The Hot Rock

The Hot Rock
(Kill Rock Stars ; 1999)

Every band has 'em - the red-headed stepchild of an album. It may work real hard in school, make good grades, help old ladies across the street, but the fact remains that there's somethin' peculiar that sticks out about that boy. And things just never go his way as a result. Thus, The Hot Rock.

Released on the heels of their career making Dig Me Out, the album that would haunt them stylistically until they blew it all away with their swan-song, The Woods, The Hot Rock is a troublesome, dark and thoughtful album. Gone are the out-and-out flailing maelstroms of riot-grrl power pop like "Dig Me Out" and "Words and Guitar." In their stead, well..it depends.

On the one hand, The Hot Rock doesn't stray that far from Sleater-Kinney's earlier albums - think a better produced Call the Doctor. "Living in Exile," "Burn Don't Freeze," "Memorize Your Lines" and "One Song For You" all have the sparse, almost awkwardly picked lead lines that had become the band's stock in trade by this point. I'll mention (for those who have forgotten or didn't know in the first place) that Sleater-Kinney crafted their sound without a bass player - just Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein's guitars. Where this enabled the band to have a unique sound from the beginning, it was already starting to paint the band into a corner. Subsequent albums would see them striking out in different directions and flailing a bit in each try, ultimately nailing it on The Woods. But here the band's spartan sound is still a novelty if not a genuine asset.

Now to contradict myself: Sleater-Kinney's sound was starting to become a roar. In addition to the awesomely surging "God is a Number," opener "Start Together" is actually a bit of a mislead. It almost sounds as if it could take off in the vein of "Dig Me Out" until the low end of the song kicks in - the dark tones announcing a different album than the band had recorded before. Janet Weiss continues to prove that she was the missing link in the band's first two albums with her powerhouse drumming. The song is never allowed to take off - reined in each time by a break in tension, guitars dropping out and surging back. The whole song finally winds up on an uncertain, wavering sharp note. And this all paves the way for the title track, the closest thing to a Television ode the band would record. "The Hot Rock" is subdued and immediately undermines the opener's building, budding exasperation.

Where the band expands or recreates their sound, they succeed swimmingly. "Don't Talk Like" is Sleater-Kinney's "Within Your Reach." Driven by a drum machine, the song's overtones fit right along the record, even if they wouldn't end up recording anything else like it again. "A Quarter to Three" is a nodding, foot-tapping closer that plays like the band's version of Radiohead's "The Tourist" - a disarming, simple song that ends the record on an odd note of certainty for an album seemingly constructed to undermine that very feeling. "The Size of Our Love" is one of the best songs they would ever write - haunting and tear-jerking in its descriptions of a love being pulled apart by death, the fuzzy, surging bridge is the song's high point - "Days go by so / slowly / Nights go by so / slowly." In the number of times I saw the band live, they never played this song and I don't know if I just wasn't lucky or if they didn't play it often. The seemingly personal nature of the song makes it unsurprising if they did eschew it in live settings.

"Get Up" is their lyrical ode to Kim Gordon. Delivered in a mix of spoken-word and singing, the song was the closest thing to a single on the record. (And hey, what do you know? There was a video!) The fevered shouts of "Get up!" in the ending chorus offer a needed moment of release on a record where they are so few and far between. It has always bothered me that the chant repeats only once when the song seems tailor-made for at least a few more repeats. Within the context of the record's unease however, the song makes sense in a way it never has before.

The Hot Rock seems to show that band realized that Dig Me Out had perfected their original sound and now it was time to go elsewhere. All Hands on the Bad One would seek to grab a hold of poppier elements of indie rock to various degrees of success and One Beat would try their hand at more obvious (but still subversive) political commentary, but both would be missing something. The Hot Rock was the beginning of a three album stretch in the wilderness, one that would net them repeat critical laurels, but from me at least, a growing unease in their ability to make the next step. The Woods would finally resolve that tension and just like "A Quarter to Three" on The Hot Rock, the moment it was resolved, they were gone.

Rating: E(xcellent)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

Sleater-Kinney - "Start Together"

Sleater-Kinney - "Don't Talk Like"

Sleater-Kinney - "The Size of Our Love"

Download The Hot Rock from EMusic.

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  • At 8:47 AM, March 04, 2008, Anonymous last year's girl said…

    Hiya - I stopped by on the strength of your guest post for Aquarium Drunkard, and what's the first thing I see but a review of an album by my all-time favourite band! Reckon I'll be reading here more often. Love your taste. I think we'll get on.


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