back view article in its original form

Sleater-Kinney: Music for the Militant

April 21, 1999
by Ram Murali

Sleater-Kinney's new album, The Hot Rock, runs fierce with emotion and carries you along the crest: sometimes angry and starkly modernist, sometimes purring seductively over funk Latin rhythms, sometimes chanting frantically over an equally frenzied bass guitar. In a lot of ways, the bitterness and hormonal anger that comes out in this CD reminds me a lot of high school, of a punk-garage band of girls in Washington State or central New Jersey or some otherwise unnotable place.

The music is angry and coldly intelligent, yet somehow intensely feminine. Sleater-Kinney are the girls who kicked your ass in English class in high school, called Hamlet a jerk, and didn't smile at you in the cafeteria afterwards - they probably read too much Sylvia Plath for their own good. But their music has a strong punk beat to it, more a sort of Luscious Jackson meets Green Day than Velvet Underground. It's not dance music, except maybe for a coven of witches. It's music that might be fun to mosh to. The songs are about pointless, self-effacing love. One lyric reads: “I am not the captain/I am just another fan/Sailing off the edge of truth/Into the end of you.”

Their lyrics are much sweeter than their music. The music itself is jagged and loud, but smoother and groovier than Hole's Live Through This. Its anger is manifested in sheer nervous energy; the rhythmic chanting at the end of almost every song is filled with a tribal force: “Baby don't you leave me/baby don't you go/I'll roll with the punches/roll out the door.”

The lyrics and the music seem very incongruous - somehow, the singer's intonation gives off the impression that she actually doesn't give a damn whether you stay or not. She's singing about love because she thinks she's supposed to. And her feelings about love are almost always the same - it sucks, the woman got burned, and now she's never going to be the same.

There's something slightly amateurish about the music that you either like or you don't - I tend to like it, because I think it contributes to the gritty honesty of the music.

One of my friends said, dispassionately, “They sound like they practice in a garage.” They definitely don't sound very produced, but the music doesn't really lose force because of the coarseness. Even their lyrics sometimes sound like ersatz poetry from the diary of a pubescent high school girl: “It's one AM, you haven't called/ it must be four wherever you are/ and the photo booth strip, and the letter you wrote/ they feel like nothing I could hold.”

However, the naturalistic quality can get old by the end of the album. I think The Hot Rock is a very good album in theory, but it's not particularly enjoyable to listen to. Too many of the songs end up covering the same theme, dealing with the same issues, and having similar chord progressions. The singer, in particular, wails desperately on every track, to the point where you wonder if her emotional range is any greater than abject bitterness. There are definitely a couple of stand-out tunes on the album - Start Together and The End of You, in particular - but this album is more interesting from a distance, and admirable intellectually, than immediately pleasurable.

Another flaw of the album paradoxically stems from one of its strengths - though it is very desperate, disjointed and passionate, it's also hard to relate to. The songs seem very much about the band's personal struggles with music and with each other; they're very personal and introspective, but sometimes to the exclusion of their listeners.

They seem to be dealing with music and love and life, but all in their own terms and not really generally. They fight too hard with themselves, and don't seem to accept or recognize others. By the end of my fourth listen to the CD, I just wanted to shake the lead singer repeatedly and force-feed her sedatives. The disc is so natural because it is real, but everything's just out there in the open. Sleater-Kinney have a lot of strengths, but subtlety isn't really one of them.

The Hot Rock is an odd CD. Deeply felt, intelligently visualized, it falls just a bit short of being excellent. It is impossible, I get the feeling, to understand The Hot Rock perfectly unless you are Sleater-Kinney. In a way, that is a benefit, because it's very non-commercial. At the same time, though, it makes me take stock of the advantages presented by mass-market music. Being vague occasionally makes for better music.