A piece of art that no one can touch
The Hot Rock
(1999; Kill Rock Stars)
If Dig Me Out was the moment that all of Sleater-Kinney’s strengths converged into one powerful whole, The Hot Rock was the moment that the trio began to explore more fully the depths of those strengths. Up until this point, Sleater-Kinney had unequivocally been characterized as a punk band — and that’s pretty much true. As punk albums go, Dig Me Out gets every note just perfect. But The Hot Rock is something different; it’s nuanced and a bit more abstract. There’s nothing on the group’s first three albums that sounds like the title track — a slow-burning post-punk number that uses a diamond heist as a metaphor for infidelity (I think?) — or “Get Up,” which finds Corin Tucker making an impressive transition between spoken-word verses and a powerful, roaring chorus. And I’m not even sure that on subsequent albums they attempted anything quite like “The Size of Our Love,” a slow, cello-laden ballad sung by Carrie Brownstein about being a cancer patient in love (and wasn’t featured in The Fault In Our Stars — missed opportunity, that).
The Hot Rock isn’t solely about experimentation, though — to suggest as much would be to imply that Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss were getting some stuff out of their system, but that wasn’t really the case. It’s an album with a more diverse array of sounds, and perhaps a greater number of risks than its predecessor, which means that it doesn’t hit every bullseye dead center. That doesen’t mean it doesn’t come close, though, and let’s be clear — it absolutely features some of the band’s best songs. One of those, “Start Together,” kicks off the album with as much of a rush as any album in their catalog, particularly as it launches into the surprisingly heavy chorus. And its closing track, “A Quarter to Three,” ranks as one of the band’s most climactic and emotional moments. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s close enough for that not to matter that much.
Rating: 9.3 out of 10
All Hands on the Bad One
(2000; Kill Rock Stars)
With The Hot Rock, Sleater-Kinney had put a comfortable amount of space between themselves and their punk roots. All of a sudden, their music contained so much more breathing room — more Unwound, less Bikini Kill. And as much as they nailed that early punk sound, the trio seemed equally capable — comfortable even! — playing with structures and sounds in a way that might have seemed uncharacteristic just a few years earlier. So it would make sense if they were to continue on that path — and they did, just not without a bit of a diversion before they actually made that progression.
I’m loath to call All Hands on the Bad One a step back. It’s not necessarily a worse album than The Hot Rock, but it feels considerably less ambitious. It’s Sleater-Kinney at their most pop, as well as a return to the short jabs of punk rock they pioneered earlier on, with some brief bridges between the two, so as not to interrupt the cohesion of it all. The material hangs together pretty well, actually, but once you’ve heard space in a Sleater-Kinney song, you start to miss it when it’s not there. “Ballad of a Ladyman” isn’t by any means the most aggressive track here, but it still feels almost cluttered by comparison to the more streamlined punk tracks like “The Professional” or “Youth Decay.” Then again, “Milkshake and Honey” is unusually relaxed — cheeky, even. The best way to define All Hands on the Bad One is that it sounds like the band had a lot of fun making it, and it shows — it’s an awful lot of fun to listen to (especially “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun“). No, it isn’t their best album, but at this point we’re judging by fractions of points. Once Sleater-Kinney hit their stride, there wasn’t anything to hold them back.
Rating: 8.9 out of 10
(2002; Kill Rock Stars)
“Where is the questioning, where is the protest song/ Since when is skepticism un-American?”
If you were to base your impression of One Beat off of “Combat Rock,” its driving Side Two opener, you’d probably reach the conclusion that it’s the band’s most explicitly political album. You’d be partially right; that song — an indictment of the Bush administration, Iraq War and that fun revival of jingoism circa 2002 — is one of the few times that Sleater-Kinney has addressed a political issue on such a wide scale. But it’s also considerably thoughtful for how huge and soaring it feels; Carrie Brownstein isn’t singing about Bush and Cheney being war criminals, exactly, but rather the idea that it shouldn’t be considered treason to have doubts about a country’s direction, and for that matter, surreal to hear a president try to reassure the country by telling them to go shopping. There’s also a line about “red, white and blue hot pants,” which I’ve always thought deserved a gold star.
But One Beat is also the most intensely personal album Sleater-Kinney has ever released. This is largely a result of Corin Tucker’s transition into motherhood, which in turn draws us into some places that hadn’t been touched upon in their previous albums. Lyrically, Tucker sings from a place of vulnerability, pleading with God for the health of her baby in “Sympathy,” or watching reports on the 9/11 terrorist attacks while she’s nursing her child on “Far Away.” And yet, her voice only sounds more powerful and commanding than before. Where her dramatic introduction in 2000′s “Ballad of a Ladyman” came off a little awkward, her booming projection in the title track opens the album with a gush of energy and authority.
Most importantly, One Beat fucking rocks. This is a band that has sold t-shirts that say “Show Me Your Riffs,” and they’re not shy about lettings those licks fly on this album. It’s Sleater-Kinney embracing their badassery, albeit from a more measured and mature place. It’s not a punk album, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll album — one of the best of the ’00s, in fact. There are thunderous sounds all over “Light Rail Coyote” and “The Remainder,” and “Step Aside” and “Sympathy” embrace blues and soul better than basically any indie rockers have since. And though it’s just one of many albums the group recorded with longtime collaborator John Goodmanson, here they sound even more loud and powerful than before. It’s maybe a couple songs shy of being perfect (“Prisstina” and “Hollywood Ending” sound more like B-sides), but damn is it close.
Rating: 9.6 out of 10
(2005; Sub Pop)
In 2005, Sleater-Kinney was ready for a change. They took up residence on Sub Pop after a long partnership with Kill Rock Stars, and worked with producer Dave Fridmann after making four records with John Goodmanson. And in doing so, the group stepped well outside their comfort zone, to the point that they were pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion, frustration and near breakdowns while recording their seventh album The Woods. Some of that came out of the confusing and just plain weird suggestions that Fridmann would make, like this amazing chestnut: “This part should sound like Keith Moon — and then like a blanket being lowered over Keith Moon’s kit.” If you’re baffled right now, just imagine how Janet Weiss felt!
Here’s the thing, though: It worked. The combination of a change of venue and collaborators, along with a new push to create something more challenging than they had before resulted in exactly that. Sleater-Kinney released two game changers in their career: Dig Me Out was the first; this is the other one. No other Sleater-Kinney album sounds like this one — a booming and explosive album of rock music that finds the band transcending indie rock and living up to the thunder of their personal heroes in The Who and Led Zeppelin, while displaying the avant garde influences of Television and Sonic Youth. It’s defined in large part by just how loud it is — if you’re not ready for the massive clap of distortion that opens first track “The Fox,” it’s downright startling. And everything that follows feels extremely physical and visceral; you don’t just hear it, you feel it. Even “Modern Girl,” a jaunty ballad in which Carrie Brownstein sings about buying a donut with a hole “the size of the entire world,” slowly disintegrates into a toxic muck of distortion and feedback.
If the first listen is about how many exclamation points the band stacks up on these 10 tracks, the second listen to The Woods is about how incredible a performance Sleater-Kinney gives here. Carrie Brownstein is arguably the album’s MVP, if for no other reason than her intense, seething vocal lead on “Entertain,” one of the band’s most triumphant rock anthems. Then again, Sleater-Kinney has always stood strongest as a unit, and here, there’s no stopping them. A lot of people rightly think of rock ‘n’ roll reunions as cynical ploys to capitalize on nostalgia for a quick buck. But I’ll say this much: If Sleater-Kinney offered another chance to hear these incredible songs live again, I’d take it in a heartbeat.
Rating: 10 out of 10
No Cities to Love
(2015; Sub Pop)
After this feature was initially published, Sleater-Kinney released their eighth album, No Cities to Love, as well as embarking on an extended series of tour dates. It would have proven significant for the sole reason that a great band had returned after 10 years of inactivity, hiatus and the possibility that they were permanently broken up. But it was much more significant than that for a very important reason: It’s a phenomenal album. To Sleater-Kinney’s credit, they left on their highest note possible with one of the best albums they ever released. Their return, however, was not a drop in quality in the slightest. No Cities to Love isn’t as immense and imposing as The Woods, but it’s nonetheless a top-tier Sleater-Kinney album. They sound confident, comfortable as a team, yet considerably looser in certain parts. On a track such as “Bury Our Friends,” they’re just as heavy as they were before making their (temporary) exit. Yet on “A New Wave,” they sound like they’re having fun playing music together more than making a statement, and it’s infectious. The most telling song, however, is “Surface Envy,” on which Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker harmonize, “We win/We lose/Only together do we make the rules.” It’s a statement of purpose and intent—they’re playing on their own terms. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Rating: 9.2 out of 10
You might also like: