6. The Hot Rock (1999)
Having proven their bonafides regarding pop concision and stardom, Sleater-Kinney doubled back toward a calmer, more introspective sound. Brownstein had become a devotee of the Go-Betweens, the beloved Australian pop-rock act who were in the midst of an extended hiatus. Even without hearing the lush, textured approach enter the band's tonal repertoire, it's easy to picture how the Go-Betweens appealed to Brownstein on a biographical level: like Sleater-Kinney, the band featured two singer-songwriters, each with his particular approach. As a result of her McLennan/Forster scholarship, Brownstein adapted her own approach for the making of The Hot Rock, increasingly applying a multi-string attack, as well as a new delicacy in her playing and singing.
The Hot Rock's title contributes to this more oblique sensibility. While rock heads could view it as a tip to the Rolling Stones, the title track makes it clear that the primary connection is to the Robert Redford heist comedy of the same name. McLennan was an inveterate film freak; it's entirely possible that "The Hot Rock" was a sly homage on Sleater-Kinney's part. In time, the entire band would collaborate on the Go-Betweens' 2000 comeback album The Friends Of Rachel Worth, with Weiss drumming on every cut.
Even in softer form, the band's chemistry is unassailable. Tucker and Brownstein perform a virtuoso ping-pong on "Burn, Don't Freeze!," tossing a descending figure back and forth. In "Get Up" (filmed by Miranda July as the band's first music video), Tucker talks her desire out in classic Gordonian form, modulating her signature trills into something quite wistful. At one point, someone interjects the loveliest "whoo!" -- whether it's Carrie or Corin, I can't tell. But it doesn't really matter; they'd weathered both a breakup and a brighter spotlight, their sonic synchronicity only gaining force. Elsewhere, on the ICU love song "The Size Of Our Love," Brownstein deploys the astounding opening couplet "Our love is the size of/ These tumors inside us." She also sings lead on "Memorize Your Lines" (another film reference?), and as on "The Size Of Our Love," the production is juiced with a new element: strings. While her vocals tend toward the placid on the record, she's assisted by the usual guitar intricacy and Tucker's able vocal support. "A Quarter To Three," the final track, reaches even further back in history, as the band channels Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" with the backgrounded "ooh! ahh!" chant.
Sleater-Kinney: the name suggests a joint sociological survey, or perhaps a university residence hall. Turns out it’s the Lacey, WA street on which the band held practices. It’s a fitting name for a group that spent more than a decade interrogating the nature of being a band. Formed by two Evergreen State University students in the searing heat of the riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney maintained a breakneck pace: releasing seven albums in 10 years, touring worldwide, and providing some of the more intelligent interviews in rock.
In a sense, Sleater-Kinney (whose classic lineup consists of drummer Janet Weiss and founding members/guitarists/vocalists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker) were one of the most professional bands of the indie-rock boom. Theirs was a non-corporate professionalism, one that saw them reach astounding levels of popularity without ever jumping the indie-label ship. They kept their heads down and challenged each other toward greatness, in the process expanding their instrumental and structural vocabulary through seven fantastic-to-incredible albums. Fame, motherhood, breakups, marriage: None of it could slow Sleater-Kinney down.
While Wikipedia still, as of today, has Sleater-Kinney pegged as a “riot grrrl” band, that’s clearly not the whole story. The riot grrrl scene was a revolution on par with ’77 punk or the first wave of American hardcore — two scenes that, despite their democratic promise, proved to be largely unaccommodating for women. It was a free region for feminist ideas and feelings and alliances and outrage, incorporating art and poetry and zinemaking and theory. Like John Peel’s beloved indie hobbyists or the DC peripherals dutifully chronicled by Ian MacKaye, the majority of self-identified riot grrrls saw expression as a vital end in itself. The idea wasn’t to do something important. It was to do something, which was inherently important.
Having said that, Sleater-Kinney was unique. Their first album, recorded in a day, put them on the map. By their third record, they were underground stars. A bassless power trio, with Tucker holding down the rumbling low-end and Brownstein darting about with curled midrange lines, Sleater-Kinney developed an awesome chemistry, as lines seamlessly meshed and clashed within the confines of a hooky three-minute song. In Weiss, the band had one of indie rock’s greatest treasures, a drummer capable of everything from assault-rifle rolls to the thundering tomwork of the gods. They wrote pop songs, punk-rock songs, songs of seething dudgeon and sexist nose-tweaking. They spent an album unpacking 9/11 and being a mom, and it was a triumph. Then, having taken their sound to its developmental endpoint, they went to the woods for intuitive, monolithic thrashing.
To see Sleater-Kinney as a riot grrrl band does them a bit of a disservice; to see them as an indie rock band, on the other hand, does a disservice to their origin, and their ideals. Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss were keen to lay out (and explode) the expectations set out by a larger world. They never stopped rocking about rock, because they were always thinking about it (and it was always being thrown in their faces). But when they sang about someone pricing your body or crawling up the stairway to heaven, it was never just about music. Sleater-Kinney remains on hiatus, but we’re still reenacting the same battles.
What follows is a list of Sleater-Kinney albums in some kind of order. Worst to best, ostensibly, but they’re all indispensable. We can talk Portlandia in the comments. Start the Countdown here.