Album review: Sleater Kinney’s ‘The Hot Rock’

Critics tend to think that northwestern punksters Sleater-Kinney are the greatest thing since sliced bread (or at least Nirvana), but does the band’s appeal extend to the common man? I’ve always thought not. For example: my brother, who’s pretty hip to marginalized rock ’n roll, told me that the band’s pseudo-breakthrough Call the Doctor sounded “like pigs squealing.” That ain’t good.

But Sleater-Kinney is, and the trio’s new album, The Hot Rock, might actually win over some new converts. It doesn’t do anything flashy or shocking, but it’s an excellent album and, perhaps more importantly, as assured and successful a marriage of punk esprit de corps and raw emotionalism as anyone’s managed since Nirvana.

Which puts the band in the company of another famous trio: the legendary postpunk outfit Hüsker Dü. Both bands have fashioned unmistakably singular bodies of work out of the same component parts. Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein can be seen as post-riot grrl reincarnations of Bob Mould and Grant Hart, the former an excoriating lyricist and vocalist, the latter sweeter of tone and voice. Both bands benefit from addressing homosexuality sincerely yet subtly; both come from geographically knit communities reflected in the confident insularity of their music.

And both are unusually comfortable navigating between the obstreperous and the saccharine. On Call the Doctor and its follow-up Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney leavened its essentially jagged framework with occasionally brilliant sing-along choruses. The Hot Rock inverts the relationship, using Brownstein’s off-kilter guitar lines, Tucker’s remarkable vibrato and, most of all, Janet Weiss’s skittering drumbeats to add bite to the (relative) sheen.

Ironically, that The Hot Rock pulls this switch off so expertly points to one important point of divergence with the Hüskers: Sleater-Kinney is just as good a pop band as it is a punk band. While Bob Mould never entirely figured out how to shape his inherently rough-hewn bluster to fit bigger, neater production, Tucker and Brownstein have got it pretty much right in their first attempt.

In fact, most of The Hot Rock’s high-water marks come when Sleater-Kinney approximates full-on pop. The album’s first single, “Get Up,” is a perfect example: strangely sunny spoken word that comes into perfect focus when Tucker and Brownstein sing the throwaway tagline (“Oh…get up!”) like a pair of lost Go-Gos. It’s an almost dizzyingly sugary summation of a song that’s pointedly weird (how many lead singles open with a line like “And when the body finally starts to let go, let it all go at once” and go on to ask “Is there splendor?”). The beauty of “Get Up” is the synthesis it achieves between the bubblegum and the bizarre.

It’s a synthesis achieved largely through the increasingly equilibratory interplay between the two singers. “Get Up,” “The End of You,” “Burn, Don’t Freeze!” and “Banned from the End of the World” find Brownstein’s pretty harmonies underpinning Tucker’s exploratory caterwauls, a pairing that allows both vocalists to get their points across through context and contrast. On paper, a Brownstein line like “backwards, forwards…fire to water” might seem meaningless; in song, whatever meaning is needed is transferred from Tucker’s simultaneous yelps.

Expanding Brownstein’s vocal role on The Hot Rock is an intelligent and gutsy move by the band. Where Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out were, bottom line, Tucker’s albums, this one feels more like a band effort: although Tucker rips through a few old-style burners (“God Is a Number,” “Living in Exile”), the best of her (predominantly) solo efforts, “Start Together” and “Don’t Talk Like,” combine her knack for surging climaxes with a surprisingly naked pop sensibility.

By the end of the album, in fact, the band is crafting four star weepies, bringing a string section in for two gorgeous laments: Brownstein’s ode to a disease-stricken lover “The Size of Our Love” and “Memorize Your Lines.” The aftermath, “A Quarter to Three,” closes with a slide guitar part that tops even the incongruous ones that Natalie Imbrigulia appends to all her Top 40 hits. Bonus: Sleater-Kinney’s version doesn’t suck, and you’ll never see the band on the cover of YM.

In a way, I guess that’s a shame, because Sleater-Kinney, at the very least, offers a lot more lyrically, than, I dunno, nudity as a metaphor for emotional vulnerability. The Hot Rock’s wounded romanticism might not thrill Bratmobile fans like Call the Doctor’s militant title track or gender-screwing “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” but it’s compellingly direct. This time around, the band’s “you”s aren’t universal or societal; they’re individual. The Hot Rock might not be as jarring as its predecessors, but you get the feeling it might be a bit more honest.

This honesty feeds the urgency of the band’s music. The only draggy songs are the two that come off as utterly impersonal: the title track, a diamond heist narrative inspired by the Redford film from which the album takes its name, and the self-explanatory “God Is a Number.” The rest of the album is, in true Hüsker Dü style, musically propelled by its own need for expression. There’s plenty of sugar, and splendor, in The Hot Rock, and both help the medicine go down in a most delightful way.