Sleater Kinney – The Hot Rock

This is the second of two reviews I wrote for an online magazine that never got published. Because they were skanks busy. Ne’ertheless, you still get to read it here, so observe with yours eyes: a retrospective review of Sleater-Kinney’s splendid Hot Rock album.

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of you readers have a band that you champion. Well, I say “champion”: I really mean that you breathlessly, frantically espouse their quality to any set of working human ears unfortunate enough to be in your general vicinity at any given moment; an overgenerous, smothering cavalcade of enthusiasm and foaming-at-the-mouth fanaticism that’s as likely to turn your victim off the sound of your voice forever as it is to turn them on to whatever mediocre band you’re promoting. “Oh, but you’ve just got to hear this one song – then Vampire Weekend will be your favouritest band everest!” No, they won’t. Now shut up. Championing bands makes everybody hate you a little bit more than they already do.

I’m given to championing Sleater-Kinney at every possible opportunity, though. Luckily, I escape the widespread hatred (and the blatant hypocrisy) via one easy scientific fact. That fact is this: Sleater-Kinney are the most brilliant thing ever. And of their seven brilliant albums, I’d likely tell people to start with Call The Doctor, One Beat or The Woods. Easy, accessible albums to jump in on. The album I’d tell them to avoid starting with is The Hot Rock. Of course, due to a combination of factors (namely, I had no one to tell me which album to start with, and more pressingly, I’m really rubbish) The Hot Rock is where my Sleater-Kinney collection started.

Released in 1999 to the delight of the more enlightened rock critics, a cult following, and not many besides, The Hot Rock was Sleater-Kinney’s densest, most considered album yet. The duelling buzz saw guitars of its predecessors were all but abandoned in favour of a bold new dynamic: singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein interwove melodic guitar lines and vocals alike, creating an album that you deciphered as much as you listened to it. At times, it sounded like they were arguing amongst themselves; at others, like they were focusing their respective, jagged ire at a common target.

And that ire came in splendid form – the group’s punk/riot grrrl roots giving them a good grounding in quick, incisive put-downs: “Don’t talk like/ like you’re nineteen/ you’re thirty-five if you’re a day” (‘Don’t Talk Like’); “Drop little boy crumbs you could follow back/ When you get lost becoming a man” (‘One Song For You’). It was like you’re being dumped by the smartest girl you know.

Even outside of the consistently wonderful “woman scorned” songs, the girls’ songwriting was predictably, reliably strong. Captaining a boat as a metaphor for leading a band (‘End of You’); GoGos-esque pop about the apocalypse (the delightfully punny ‘Banned From The End of the World’); love-as-jewel-heist ballads (‘Hot Rock’) – they were masters of avoiding cliché. And Corin Tucker was, all the while, demonstrating a newfound control over her trademark shrill warble, which makes the times she lets loose with an otherworldly shriek all the more brilliantly terrifying.

How fitting then, that the single most terrifying, affecting, and memorable moment on the album belongs to Carrie Brownstein (whose vocals on this album are by far her most tender and sweet) on the starkly beautiful ballad ‘The Size of Our Love’. This song is about as uplifting as finding out your dog died. Which is bad enough already, but on top of that, the dog died because of a disease YOU accidentally gave it. You killed your own dog, you vile pet-killer. Also, you then ate your dog.

To give you a taste of the tone of the song, I offer the first verse:

“Our love is the size of

These tumours inside us

Our love is the size of this hospital room

You’re my hospital groom.”

Robert Christgau, the delightful, self-appointed “Dean” of this headless, gormless circus elephant we call music criticism, said of the song: “The reason ‘The Size of Our Love’ sounds like death, on the other hand, is that sometimes love is death.” That’s simultaneously the most brilliantly incisive review of this song that could be constructed out of a single sentence, and the most depressing thing ever. Which, I’d imagine, would please Sleater-Kinney greatly: they were hardly aiming for sunshine lollipops when they wrote the line “I visit beds like they’re graves”, were they?

And being honest, The Hot Rock, for all its moments of pure rock brilliance, isn’t an album to party to. You’ll probably end up singing along to it (or trying vainly to match Corin’s wails, and alienating yourself from your family in the process. Actually, that might just be me) but it won’t be a joyous celebration of good times and cheer. Rather, it will be cathartic, or if you’re young folk, dimly meaningful in a teenage kind of way, you awful young person.

This is thinking-person’s rock, masquerading as punk rock, wearing funeral clothes to a free-for-all poetry reading. It might not be Sleater-Kinney’s best album, but it’s likely one of the best albums you’ve never heard.

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