If rock ‘n’ roll is the music of individualism, then the human voice is the instrument of rock ‘n’ roll: with enough study a good guitarist can copy another’s style, but we’ll never hear another Elvis Presley, John Lennon, or Kurt Cobain. Yet much “indie” rock devalues the vocals, burying them under a morass of guitar or slurring the lyrics until they’re unintelligible to erase the classic-rock dichotomy between singing star and backing band. Sleater-Kinney figured out this irony a long time ago, and with their distinctive–and distinctly audible–dual-vocal attack, they’ve easily risen above the swarm. Since 1997 the three women have enjoyed a tidal wave of hyperbolic critical acclaim (Greil Marcus recently declared S-K “the best band in the country”), and while their latest release, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars), doesn’t measure up to the hype or to its superb predecessor, Dig Me Out, it does showcase once again what makes this band sound like no other. Drawing inspiration from Patti Smith and Sinead O’Connor, Corin Tucker sings in a raging alto, her high notes quivering with a gratuitous vibrato, while Carrie Brownstein’s flat, ducky voice suggests a vulnerability that makes Tucker’s banshee wail all the more scarifying. Instead of singing harmony or conventional call and response, they begin with the same thematic and musical idea, pursue it individually, and then weave the two songs together. And by working the vocals into crisp arrangements with their tightly knit guitar lines and Janet Weiss’s simple, precise drumming, they only strengthen the indie notion that the voice is just an instrument. As lyricists, they’re equally prone to fury and fondness, tenderness and terror, yet their voices speak louder than the words–the dynamic range between Brownstein’s quiet contemplation and Tucker’s emotional firestorms is the X factor that makes their music so thrilling. At its best, Sleater-Kinney proves that we can find points of intersection without sacrificing our selves–and that real rockers can join their voices in song without wearing identical suits. Sunday, 6:30 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203 or 312-559-1212. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marina Chavez.