Think about your favourite artist, then think about their catalogue. Chances are they have a White Album or a Sea Change or Village Green Preservation Society. I know one of my favourite bands has a record like this and the more I listen to it, the more I like it. It’s Sleater-Kinney’s 1999 album, The Hot Rock.
On their first three records, Sleater-Kinney busted out hard, raucous guitar rock. The title track on Dig Me Out is a good example: crashing drums, shouted vocals and frantically fast guitars, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker pushing each other forward until their amps start feeding back. It just crackles with energy.
But it was also a trend of their music getting more and more propulsive; as good as Dig Me Out is (and it’s really good, folks), it’s the sum of their first couple records, the frantic playing pushed to it’s limits: they could keep going, but you could argue they’d be staying in the lane they’d set for themselves. Time to take a step back, then, perhaps.
So where Dig Me Out starts with a kick, The Hot Rock starts a little slower on “Start Together”: it’s more chugging than pushing, while Janet Weiss’ drums are pushed to the front and the singing is slower, more drawn out and more controlled. “Everything’s changing,” she sings, “You are… you are…”
And the guitars! They’re sound cleaner, but the playing is more ambitious: as it pulls forward, it pushes itself back. As Tucker draws out her vocal lines, the guitars slash and break into descending scales. It’s all nervous tension, without the cathartic release of an explosive guitar break.
But by the next track, “Hot Rock” things have slowed down and the album generally stays around this level. The title track juxtaposes a 70s movie about a jewel heist (a hot rock, get it) against an uncommitted partner (“I’m not the one you wanted / not the thing you keep”), while “God Is a Number” is built around a simple guitar riff, a thundering chorus.
Throughout The Hot Rock, there’s a conscious sense of pushing against restraints and Sleater-Kinney seeing what they were capable of. As it turned out, they were capable of quite a lot more than driving power pop.
In a few places, The Hot Rock sounds downright experimental. There’s a jerky mechanical rhythm in “Don’t Talk Like,” while “Banned From the End of the World” has Tucker and Brownstein shouting their lines against each other, their words almost overlapping. On “One Song For You,” their words actually do overlap as the band kicks into overdrive for the chorus.
Everything pays off on “The Size of Our Love,” a song about dying and love, where the guitars are drenched in reverb and a violin (played by Seth Warren) drones along and blends perfectly into Sleater-Kinney’s sound as Tucker sings “the days go by so slowly / the nights go by so slowly.” It’s arguably the most emotional song in their catalogue to that point, but it’s not one that stuck in their live sets. According to one database, they only played it a handful of times.
The Hot Rock ends with “A Quarter to Three,” which is built around another guitar riff, this time played on slide guitar by producer Roger Moutenot, and ends with an accordion and Tucker singing “At this point, I’m really me…” And after spending about 40 minutes with Sleater-Kinney’s songs, it’s hard not to agree.
In interviews, the band’s admitted that this and The Woods were the two records they worked longest on in the studio, which makes sense if you think about it; it’s certainly their biggest change in sound between albums. It paid off, too. Their next record All Hands On the Bad One was closer in spirit to their first few records, but sonically shows the imprint of The Hot Rock. The politics and energy are still there in spades, but there’s a sense of maturity, too. Just listen to “Ballad of a Ladyman,” a song they could’ve played fast and loud but very purposely didn’t, letting the lyrics resonate. Just compare it to “Dig Me Out” and see how quickly Sleater-Kinney’s sound matured: the tempo’s dropped, but the energy and passion were as strong as ever.
In 2001, rock critic Greil Marcus called Sleater-Kinney America’s best rock band. He was writing about All Hands… and not The Hot Rock, but you can’t have the one without the other. The Hot Rock wasn’t just a break from their recent past, but it set the tone for their second act – which in turn set the stage for both 2005’s The Woods and their comeback LP No Cities to Love. I know it’s arguably my favourite of their records: I’ve been listening to it almost constantly for well over a month now and I’m still finding it as exciting as the first time I cranked it in my car stereo.
Indeed, as much as any of Sleater-Kinney’s records, The Hot Rock unpacks and reveals itself over repeated listens. Like Tusk, You Are Free or On the Corner, it’s an album that’ll wait for you when you’re ready.