Under cover?

Stepping through the symbolic gateway to Sleater-Kinney's new album.

On the cover of The Hot Rock, their just-released fourth album, the fashionable, Prada-esque gals of Sleater-Kinney strike a disaffected pose on a city street while one raises her arm to hail a cab; it's an enticingly cryptic image, especially considering that the artwork to their previous record, Dig Me Out, simply borrowed a design concept from an old Kinks LP.

Are Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss trying to tell us something about the new record, or about themselves or their band? Were the Beatles letting us in on a secret about the shoeless Paul on Abbey Road's famed front photo? Yes, yes, they were. But what could this Sleater-Kinney message be?

Sleater-Kinney

RKCNDY, Friday, February 26

DV8, Sunday, February 28?

For one thing, they're trying to hail a cab in Portland, where you're about as likely to have a UFO respond to your raised hand's plea. Is this picture a subtle reference to the inscrutability of love, or a more direct one to resolute hope in the face of hopelessness? Certainly, these themes dance around inside the trio's jaunty fare. In "The End of You," lead guitarist and second vocalist Brownstein clearly sings, "You say 'sink or swim,' what a cruel cruel phrase/I'd rather fly. . . . "

But even stranger is that there's a taxi in the photo, it's devoid of passengers, and it has just driven past the chic young women. (I mention their looks, of course, so as to rule out the possibility that the cabbie has refused them a ride because they appear dangerous.) This one's tough. Obviously, success hasn't passed Sleater-Kinney by: Dig Me Out sold more than 50,000 copies, a rare feat for a record on an indie label, and The Hot Rock is one of the most anticipated albums of the year—even according to mainstream publications.

The music, likewise, doesn't provide any clues. Working with Roger Moutenot, the producer who helped Yo La Tengo achieve a warm, sensual glow on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Sleater-Kinney softens its edges without relinquishing the impact of well-written, feverishly performed songs. Ah, that's it! The black-and-white taxi symbolizes the departure of the stark, two-dimensional aesthetic of the band's first three albums. Well, maybe.

Delving further into the implications: Corin, whose sideward gaze hints at anger, is carrying a guitar case, while drummer Janet stands, looking distracted, a red travel bag slung over her shoulder; Carrie, her hand still raised, is practically bursting with impatience. A cleverly veiled reference to Weiss' frequent departures to play with her other band Quasi or to back Elliott Smith? Perhaps, but a better explanation is that all three are seeking shelter from the oncoming surge of attention that their latest opus will bring. In song and especially in the interviews I've done with them, they've decried the publicity onslaught that follows each release and the ensuing invasion of their personal privacy.

Self-aggrandizement clearly isn't their goal. When Tucker so memorably shrieked "I wanna be your Joey Ramone," she wasn't addressing the snaggle-toothed, balding rock critics who revel in their understanding of Sleater-Kinney, but making a metaphorical pronouncement about rock's failure to lionize women; or, more directly, she was telling the young listeners she plainly targets that thinking music fans have other options besides the typical male role models.

Likewise, the shift to a more streamlined approach from the band's rawer origins isn't pronounced enough to seem calculated. Yes, there's a growing stylishness in Sleater-Kinney's music, to the point of including violin parts (played by Red Stars Theory's Seth Warren) on a couple of tracks. And the lyrics betray a newfound literary slant, with narratives and imagery coloring songs like the explosive "Burn, Don't Freeze!" and the heartbreaking ballad "The Size of Our Love." But like all great bands, Sleater-Kinney makes these progressions seem effortless, as if the whole remarkable album were written and recorded as an act of, well, Caprice—at least, that's what the model name of that taxi cab suggests.

 
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