Sleater-Kinney are rock 'n' roll stars the way they barely make them any more: incandescing with their own energy, bouncing from sheer power, off on a trip all their own. Once Corin Tucker opens her mouth and lets that rocketing, vibrating cry out of her throat, there is no mistaking them for any other band -- she sings everything like she's pleading for someone's life. Every song is a half-adversarial, half-eroticized tango between her guitar and Carrie Brownstein's, jabbing and feinting basslessly while drummer Janet Weiss guides their chaotic interplay with a deft snap. Onstage, they channel anger into fun and back again, reeling and rocking, crisp and terse. Their five years' worth of records have been pretty uneven, and it took a while for their hands to catch up with their hearts, but their best moments are thrilling: electric and new like the line of music that goes through Chuck Berry and Patti Smith and Nirvana and P.J. Harvey, loving rock enough to come up with a new way to play it.
They're incredibly audacious, as any band that wants to reach the heights they're trying for has to be. Calling their first album in a couple of years "The Hot Rock" and putting a gemstone on its back cover suggests they're making another gutsy move: trying to de-marginalize their part of the rock underground with an album that can sit alongside, say, Aerosmith's "Rocks," but that approaches its physical ideal from a very different angle. It's an ambitious idea, and the execution is a curious failure.
The biggest problem with "The Hot Rock" is that Sleater-Kinney seem to have pretty much discarded the idea of pleasure. It's unlike them: One of their earlier records' great virtues is how they communicate extremes of emotion, from the sexual horror of "Little Mouth" to the celebratory sarcasm of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone." Parts of their last album, "Dig Me Out," were out-and-out chipper (the giddy chorus of "Little Babies," the Olympia-sock-hop vibe of "Dance Song '97"), and even when their words were bitter, they tore at the hooks with delighted gusto. Going by the words of the new disc, though, they've made a concept album about trying to numb oneself to get away from emotional pain, bottoming out with "The Size of Our Love" -- a too-blunt lyric sung in Brownstein's artless coo, about watching a lover dying in a hospital -- and resolving with "A Quarter to Three's" declaration "Nothing bad, nothing free/There's nothing left/For me to feel." And their music and performances never really get away from that compressed emotional range.
The other big problem is that, having staked out their signature sound, they patrol its borders but never move beyond it. They have one great trick, which they've been pulling off regularly since the beginning of the band: Brownstein and Tucker pick a lyrical theme and a set of chords, each one comes up with lyrics, a melody and a guitar part, and then they play them at the same time -- essentially two different songs that sync up perfectly, like halves of a mind talking to each other. "Burn, Don't Freeze" was written that way, and it's the highlight of "The Hot Rock," seething with tension on all kinds of levels. (The two singer-guitarists used to be a couple, and their give-and-take is in the tradition of bands of exes from Fleetwood Mac to Eurythmics to, come to think of it, Weiss' other group, Quasi.) They repeat the formula on "Get Up," the weirdest choice for a single anybody's made in a while: Tucker reading an abstract poem, Brownstein singing a few wobbly lines and reeling off variations on a spidery guitar line, and Weiss trying to hold it all together with a discofied slap.
Instrumentally, they're better than they've ever been. Brownstein, in particular, is the closest thing to a Chuck Berry figure in rock right now, partly for her onstage duck-walk moves but mostly for the way she makes up parts that are simple, gripping and totally non-intuitive (it can safely be said that the break in "The End of You" would not occur to any other guitarist). But they rely on their signature sound to cover up for the weakness of most of these songs, and they're in danger of letting their style become an end in itself. Too much of the album sounds like the result of rehearsal-space jamming, rather than songwriting per se -- it's inchoate, ungrounded, long-winded. There's no chorus on the order of "Little Mouth" or "Anonymous," no massive riff like the ones that made "Dig Me Out" and "Words and Guitar" cook. And even Tucker's heart-shattering voice can get samey -- she could make the tax code sound desperate and passionate, but she couldn't make it sound any other way.
Even at their worst, though, Sleater-Kinney don't do things in a received way. "Grow up on the Internet, get off on TV/Tell me about God and country, music, heart and history," goes one line that would be flirting with banality, except for that out-of-nowhere "heart" -- and, actually, what's "music" doing in there? The same thing it's doing in most of these songs, it turns out: occupying the center of their world. There's a danger in writing as many songs about being a band as Sleater-Kinney have, because it suggests a kind of navel-gazing reflexivity that puts up an additional wall between the performers and the audience. But that's exactly the point of "The End of You," "The Hot Rock's" other stellar addition to their repertoire. "I am not the captain/I am just another fan," Tucker wails: "Tie me to the mast/of this ship and of this band." They're conscious of their place within the glory of rock, and of how much bigger than them it is, and how it calls on them to be big themselves. It's something they can still feel deeply, and they give it everything they have.