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