Welcome to a new decade, readers. I was wracking my brain for what the first post of the teens should be yesterday. It should be something substantial and prescient in big capital letters. But that puts a lot of pressure on a person. As a result, I backed away from my laptop and got a little bit of much-needed post-New Year’s Eve napping. I also burrowed deeper in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I felt I needed to finish before I could think about anything else anyway.
But now that I finished the book and am heart-broken over tragic Laura Chase, let’s ease into my first entry of the new decade by writing about an album that came out in 1999.
This album came out my sophomore year of high school, but I didn’t listen to it until I was in college. I knew of Sleater-Kinney because magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin paid lip service to them. Later in high school, I heard some of their earlier hits on KTRU (you know, “Words and Guitar,” “Little Babies,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”). But I never really had my adolescent Sleater-Kinney feminist music geek phase like a lot of my contemporaries, probably because I was listening to Björk, Liz Phair, Cibo Matto, Erykah Badu, and PJ Harvey instead.
I would’ve made a little more room on my CD shelves, but I don’t actually remember seeing a Sleater-Kinney album in a record store until I was in college. The first cover I saw was All Hands on the Bad One. But the second one I saw was this one, and I’ve stared at it a lot more.
The Hot Rock is also my favorite Sleater-Kinney record, though The Woods and One Beat nudge for top ranking. Part of the reason might be that I felt like I discovered it. While I obviously hadn’t, I’d never heard any songs off this album until I was doing my own radio show. I wonder if this has anything to do with it being poorly received upon initial reception, as many bristled at the band smoothing over its once rawer sound (though I know at least one person who would disagree with that opinion). I also seem to remember some folks derisively referring to it as their “dance” record. But its dancability was a huge part of the record’s appeal for me.
It also let me know that they must be Joy Division and New Order fans. Listen to Brownstein and Tucker’s guitars on “End of You” or “Get Up” and tell me that they’re not doing their version of guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist’s Peter Hook interplay.
This was really important for me. New Order ruled much of my adolescence, along with Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Pet Shop Boys, and Electronic (Sumner’s side project with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr). Before I heard The Hot Rock, I liked Sleater-Kinney fine but felt that their interests in classic rock like The Who and Led Zeppelin, while interesting in terms of gender, gave me little to relate to musically. But this album made me think, sing at the top of my lungs, and dance my ass off.
Speaking of dancing your ass off, feel free to listen to one of their last shows, courtesy of NPR.
Also, I gotta give the ladies credit for setting the stage for what was to come. By 2004, people wanted to give credit to bands like The Rapture for creating dance-punk. I think Sleater-Kinney beat them to it, and managed to sound less dated in the process. They also gestured toward a band that I think had a continued impact on the music of this decade. At the beginning of the decade, a lot of people thought the key indie rock influence was going to be Gang of Four, but every third band I hear these days swipes from either Joy Division or New Order. How’s that for prescient?
Okay, I think there’s some of Gang of Four’s clangy electric guitar on this album too. “Memorize Your Lines” is one example I’ll offer.
But I can’t think of this album without poring over Marina Chavez’s cover photo, studying these three tough, professional ladies. Brownstein’s hailing a taxi to drive them to some unforeseen destination that I always imagine is the gig. Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss haul their gear and glance furtively at something outside the frame, ready to protect the unit from any unseemly element that doesn’t recognize that they’re not with the band but rather, they are the band. Wherever they’re going, they’re getting there together and splitting the cab fare. It’s as strong a feminist message of band solidarity and as hopeful a symbol of the untraveled road as I can find, and a gift I hope to share with you readers as we all embark on a new year together.