The complexity of romance sparked the creative fervor of Sleater-Kinney’s classic 1999 LP The Hot Rock
Like the others, The Hot Rock is Sleater-Kinney’s best album depending on the day of the week, what you had for breakfast, and how many weeks it’s been since you last broke someone’s heart.
In fact, you could measure all their early records by the distance from that hypothetical (and for a short time, literal) relationship: Sleater-Kinney a coiled, intense young romance between Woman A and Woman B both pointing their excoriating words in one direction. Call the Doctor still in the thick of it but fraying at the edges, the sui generis power trio’s most outwardly anti-objectification statement (“Your words are sticky stupid running down my legs”) with both personas occasionally catching a halting glance at each other. Dig Me Out in the eye of the storm, with crying, yelling, hugging, pleading, and riffing, particularly “One More Hour,” the most inconsolable punk song I know.
Then there’s a one-year pause after three straight fire-diamonds, and The Hot Rock emerges with two distinct voices singing simultaneously from completely different perspectives, but not clashing. They can breathe. They can hear one over the other. They can be in the same band. One can sing “you’re the truest light I’ve ever known” and the other can immediately riposte “I’m the one who decides what I am.” It’s not just the voices; there are fewer chords on The Hot Rock than on any other release by the two genius guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, so that even their plucked notes collide at awkward angles and rarely move as one.
And yet, their most jagged and rickety musical structures to date were also their prettiest. We get breathing room, arpeggios, single-note doodles like the vaguely ragtime figure in the middle eight of “Banned from the End of the World” or the climactic high-end frills in the title tune. Two of the band’s first-ever ballads, “A Quarter to Three” and “The Size of Our Love,” are also two of their greatest, the latter a particular heartbreaker of a different kind; Brownstein and Tucker had traded lines about ended love before, but never one caused by imminent death.
Corralling Roger Moutenot, high on his definitive production for Yo La Tengo (1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One was one of alt-rock’s best sea changes ever), was a major coup. You can hear him shifting the focus from the band’s power and heaviness to their wiry intricacies, even with touches like countermelodies on melodica or cello. What’s most astonishing is how music this knotted doesn’t get bogged down by its complexity but rather comes up for air rather nicely and frequently; a partly spoken-word tangle like “Get Up” sounded triumphant enough in the end to pass for a single, with their first video to boot. The hyperactive call-response of “One Song for You” and pirate-themed “The End of You” are certainly rock anthems even if you can’t tell what they’re on about.
You could say that The Hot Rock is a breather altogether in a gratifyingly claustrophobic catalogue of hurricane voices and shipwrecked guitar riffs tied together by Janet Weiss’s disciplinary, yet furious skin-pounding, especially when the band’s three most recent albums are among their loudest and most caterwauling works. Along with 2000’s underrated, girl-group-inflected All Hands on the Bad One, it’s the premier hard rock band’s easiest listen, and no less imbued with tortured emotion and thunderous vocal performances than the rest of Sleater-Kinney’s oeuvre. It’s just their first to build a theme around restraint and meditation. It sure sounds like their best in this moment. But that will change when I put on another.