Review Summary: The Hot Rock sees Sleater-Kinney branching out into new directions with their music, setting the stage for later, and better albums, as well as acting as a breakout for Carrie Brownstein as a frontwoman.
Sleater-Kinney had a lot to live up to on The Hot Rock. 2 years earlier, the band had delivered Dig Me Out, their post-Riot Grrrl masterpiece on relationships in crisis. The album was beloved by critics, and rightfully so. The songwriting was top notch, the playing aggressive and in your face but the songs accessible enough and even somewhat catchy enough so as not to alienate the listener. Simply put, it's a stone cold classic.
Like many bands trying to follow a classic, Sleater-Kinney took the wise root and tried not to emulate it and most likely fail, but go for something a little different. The Hot Rock offers a much more melodic, gloomy and introspective sound than the band's previous albums. Does it work? For the most part.
One of the best aspects of The Hot Rock is the emergence of guitarist Carrie Brownstein as a significant vocal force, her softer voice being more well suited to these new songs. The End of You has some great vocals by Carrie during its choruses. The Size of Your Love is a genuinely beautiful ballad featuring some violin that Carrie really shines on. Also throw in the title track and Quarter to Three, two other slower songs that feature Carrie, and it proves to be her breakout album; she's the real star here. At the same time, having two confident vocalists allows Sleater-Kinney to open up on tracks like Burn Don't Freeze and One Song For You which feature separate vocal lines sung by Brownstein and lead vocalist Corin Tucker that overlap each other.
Instrumentation on a whole is more experimental as well. Along with the aforementioned violin, The Hot Rock also features a nicely placed Glockenspiel on Living In Exile among other things. The band calm down their playing, focusing more on melodic lines than power chords to suit the less aggressive songs. It's not their strongest work and I don't think as a band they really peaked until The Woods, their second masterpiece, where every instrumental break is monstrous and momentous, but The Hot Rock is a step in the right direction.
Don't Talk The Line is one track that even ventures into an Indie-ish sort of sound featuring some lo-fi guitar strumming and some more beautiful crooning from Carrie over a Frampton-ish, rotating speaker-infused lead guitar, setting up one of the many classic rock sounds that would begin to make their way into their work before peaking on The Woods. It's different for sure, but probably my favourite song on the album.
So is The Hot Rock all soft and mellow? Not at all. Tracks like Living In Exile, Start Together and End of You all offer some frantic, dissonant and noisy guitar freak outs and those same old love-em-or-hate-em Corin Tucker wails. The balance between these tracks and the new ones is really what makes The Hot Rock a great album though. On their own, the songs aren't quite as memorable as those on other Sleater-Kinney albums, 2 or 3 aside, but as a whole every song works nicely together, making The Hot Rock an album that's really better heard as a whole. So, all in all, it's not really Sleater-Kinney's best work, but it's a damn fine album either way and an important work in their oeuvre. It's a must for fans, but for outsiders I would point to either Dig Me Out or The Woods as your gateway Sleater-Kinney album.