Twenty-some years since punk rewrote the rules, the question is no longer “Can girls truly rock?” but rather, Is Sleater-Kinney the greatest rock & roll band in America? During the best moments of the cheekily titled The Hot Rock, you’d be hard-pressed to name one better. As on their previous records, the Pacific Northwest trio brings a trembling, breathtaking fury to songs about love’s life-and-death struggles and the search for genuine emotion in a jungle of media-made facsimiles. This time, Carrie Brownstein’s Morse-code guitar is brighter and more piercing than ever, and Corin Tucker’s ululating, straining-the-leash wail continues to scorch hearts and level buildings.
On the surface, The Hot Rock has less of the booster-rocket rush of 1997’s Dig Me Out. The music is more willful, less unbridled, and the group deploys its power in new ways. Working against drummer Janet Weiss’ shifty, mid-tempo martial rhythms, Tucker explores what her voice can do when it’s not in overdrive, stretching vowels like a religious supplicant or spewing prosody like Patti Smith. At the same time, Brownstein blossoms as a singer herself, taking a haunting solo turn on “The Size of Our Love,” and braiding lines with Tucker so artfully the result sounds like the voicings of a single restless mind.
It’s the depth of the group’s interplay — echoing foremothers like the Raincoats and Scrawl and forefathers like R.E.M. and U2 — and the thrill of sonic release that define The Hot Rock. It’s Sleater-Kinney’s most finely turned record, and even when songs glance toward self-consciousness (as when Tucker declares ”I am not the captain/I’m just another fan” on ”The End of You”), the music never falters. So while they may hold true to punk’s spirit of anti-stardom, the group should beware: When hall-of-fame historians finally recognize the women who retooled rock’s emotional language, Sleater-Kinney are going to have a lot to answer for. A