Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour at 20.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
In Carrie Brownstein’s excellent memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, she characterises the recording sessions of Sleater-Kinney’s fourth album The Hot Rock, which turns 20 today, as “enervating.” “It sucked us dry.” The acclaimed trio’s third album, 1997’s Dig Me Out, theoretically seemed to be the point where everything changed: Carrie and Corin Tucker took the music in a less punk and more rock & roll direction, they jumped labels from Chainsaw Records to Kill Rock Stars (where they’d remain until 2005’s The Woods), major critics began to take notice, and, most importantly, the line-up would solidify with the addition of Janet motherfucking Weiss on drums. But there’s an equally as cogent argument to be made that The Hot Rock was the point where Sleater-Kinney’s trajectory was set primarily because it’s such an outlier in their 90s output.
For one, as mentioned in Brownstein’s memoir, The Hot Rock had extended time spent on its creation. The three prior records were banged out in no more than eight days a piece, “a crude aural bloodletting,” whilst Hot Rock was recorded in three and a half weeks with the writing process taking a year. For two, regular producer John Goodmanson – who had and would continue to work on all of the groups’ records save for this, 2005’s The Woods (which was handled by notorious noise-meister Dave Fridmann), and their upcoming 2019 album (being boarded by St. Vincent) – was dropped in favour of Roger Mountenot, whom the trio sought out for his work on Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and, according to Brownstein, contentiously saw Tucker as the star of the project instead of the trio as an equal unit. And for three, rather than evolve on the raucous intensity of their breakthrough Dig Me Out, the band instead switched up their sound almost entirely for something much more alienating and complex.
To be sure, the band who recorded the raw and clattering “One More Hour” are still here and you will not mistake the inimitable banshee roar of Corin Tucker’s impeccable voice for anyone else, but Hot Rock is quite the shift for the band. It’s a more musically uncertain record, one rooted in conflict and fear. Where Dig Me Out essentially fought through the pain on a united front, with both the lyrics and music seeking to bash head-first through what trauma and heartbreak needed to be dealt with, Hot Rock splinters and at times feels at war with itself. Brownstein describes the songs as “like a conscious and subconscious battling it out.” On prior records, it was almost always clear whether Corin or Carrie were playing the lead or rhythm guitar parts; here, on tracks like “Burn, Don’t Freeze!” and “Start Together,” the distinctions blur into meaninglessness. Prior records had Tucker’s towering skyscraper of a shriek and Brownstein’s lower, more measured deliveries take turns and harmonise like in traditional rock acts; The Hot Rock instead has them constantly tripping over each other’s feet, singing conflicting melodies and entire verses out of sync to such a degree that even having the lyric sheet to hand does little to clear up any potential confusion over who’s singing what. And as for Janet Weiss, one of Rock’s best drummers, she’s taking chances with those backbeats that keep the songs clinging to some kind of support but upon closer inspection are just as off-kilter and deliberately unsteady as the guitar lines – listen to all the little rests she peppers in throughout the verses of “Get Up” in order to make the constant forward-thump of that bridge near the song’s end feel complete and transcendent.
The results should be an absolute and barely-coherent mess, yet every song somehow locks together perfectly. Credit can be partially handed to Mountenot, whom Brownstein described as “a producer” (as in the kind of guy who “labored over amp sounds and mic placement”), for finding the exact right tones for both guitars and not being afraid of any negative space in the mix – the only additional flourishes to be found come in the form of a brief mellotron on “Get Up,” dramatic accentuations of a violin courtesy of Seth Warren on “The Size of Our Love” and “Memorize Your Lines,” and additional pinging slide guitar by Mountenot himself on the closer “A Quarter to Three.” Nobody’s going to mistake Hot Rock as a record from a decade other than the 90s, yet it manages to avoid both the self-consciously lo-fi and grimy sounds of its fellow underground contemporaries and the brick-walled ear-bleeding murky monstrosities of its alternative radio contemporaries.
Combined with the virtuosic songwriting of Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss – whose work here very much reflects a longer gestation process and a desire to stretch their collective abilities rather than resting on prior laurels – that makes The Hot Rock an album which, for all of its intensity and anxiety, is surprisingly easy to relax into once that initial learning curve is overcome. Within a few listens, these songs just click into place and sound like the most natural conversations in the world. Carrie and Corin’s duelling verses on “Burn, Don’t Freeze!” reveal alternating grace points in their respective melodies which make switching one’s attention between them a natural interplay. The urgency of “Living in Exile,” constantly doubting itself in a deliberate yet hard to pin manner, is a shaking communication of imposter syndrome once one is able to put enough distance between themselves and Weiss’ mountainous drumming. And the point where Brownstein and Tucker finally link together and harmonise beautifully on the titular phrase of “Get Up” has, even after all these years, never failed to give me goosebumps in my very soul; it’s a stratospheric moment in Rock music.
Those moments of vulnerability I think are what keep me coming back to this album most of all out of Sleater-Kinney’s unfuckwithable discography. I read on a forum once discussing the band a belief that The Hot Rock is perfect rainy-day music, which I find describes the album to a tee and, like the best rainy-day albums, you get out what you put into it. Even if it’s not as straightforward as Call the Doctor or Dig Me Out, there’s still no shortage of all-out fast-paced rockers to vent your spleen to (“Banned from the End of the World,” “One Song for You”). Traces of the trio’s defiantly feminist and political leanings – which had always been a part of their discography, Call the Doctor after all has “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” but would boil over on their records following this – start taking centre-stage with “The End of You” (putting the music industry on blast) and “God is a Number” (whose Y2K origins have managed to metamorphose into a semi-prescient call-out of modern tech-consumer society). But the moments that stick most of all for me are where the foot comes off the gas and the band pour their hearts out about failing relationships and the concept of mortality – “Don’t Talk Like” has Corin’s most tender vocal performance in the band’s history, “The Size of Our Love” has Carrie devastatingly describing a dying marriage through “tumours” and “a hospital room in a box built for two,” whilst “Get Up” towers above everything else and is one of my favourite songs of all-time.
Again, Sleater-Kinney’s discography is unique in that it’s nothing but a solid upward trajectory in quality from album to album yet each record (save for the formula-refining Call the Doctor) is so fundamentally different from the rest that it basically comes down to personal preference as to which one a fan might hold up as their favourite. It just depends on which niche most scratches your own tastes. I have listened to The Hot Rock constantly ever since I first bought it in late 2014 (when Sub Pop reissued the entire discography in celebration of the debut’s 20th anniversary and surprise-reveal of No Cities to Love), yet even now I’m hearing new layers in the songwriting and vibing to different songs in different ways. It, along with Turn on the Bright Lights and xx, is the vinyl I reach for when I’m feeling melancholy and need to just retreat into myself for 40 minutes. The Hot Rock would be the start of bigger things for Sleater-Kinney – it would include their first music video, it would be their first record to chart on the Billboard 200, and its accompanying tour would be the first time that Carrie’s debilitating back pain manifested (something which would eventually lead to the band’s initial demise, as she tells it, in 2006) – as evinced in the very first words of the record: “if you want me, it’s changing.” But all these years later, its modesty is what enables the record to stand head and shoulders above its self-consciously grander contemporaries and, for me anyway, even the band’s own stellar future works.
Callie Petch is numb just like a fallen limb.