'Dark', 'mature', 'complex', and 'difficult' are all terms that often get applied to The Hot Rock. It doesn't have the relatively straightforward, more punk rock influenced sound of their earlier releases but it also doesn't bear the pop or classic rock influences of their later work. No, The Hot Rock sits at the point where the band really started to push their songwriting and musicianship to the fore, bringing forward the influence of Television's interlocking dual guitar interplay and indie rock's willingness to mess with a band's established sound. The subject matter is indeed 'darker', more 'mature', more 'complex', and more 'difficult', but given the right listener and/or the right amount of time, The Hot Rock reveals itself as an album full of memorable songs and intricate guitar rock.
Sleater-Kinney's unique sound is due as much to who they are as it is to their approach to music. Often lumped in with but not fully accepted as part of the early-to-mid 90s riot grrl scene, the band feature a unique two guitar/one drummer set up, with both Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker tuning their guitars down to give them a more bass-y sound. Drummer Janet Weiss has a classic rock heft to her style but still fits in well within the odd, off-kilter arrangements of the band. At the same time, Brownstein's and Tucker's vocals contrasted, Brownstein handling lead vocals with her at times violent wails and emotive power, while Tucker often added sweet relief and counter lines to the main vocals.
The Hot Rock spends all of its first half laying down a heavy gauntlet of ideas and complex rock, songs like 'God Is A Number' questioning both God and science and 'End Of You', which references The Odyssey. With 'Don't Talk Like' the album enters its second half where the band shows tremendous growth: this song says so much about the disintegration of a relationship while remaining quite vague. 'Get Up' examines the frailty of the human body as well as death and the afterlife; similarly, 'The Size Of Our Love', a slow lament, seems to be the story of being in love with someone dying of cancer, possibly even the narrator having cancer as well. Finally, there's 'Quarter To Three', which is the most devastating relationship song the band ever wrote, with its character finally giving up on a love and "goin' to bed at a quarter to three/finally tired, finally empty."
Though I do love Dig Me Out and the rest of the albums of their's that I've heard, I'll always think of The Hot Rock as Sleater-Kinney's best album. It's not their most popular, their most listenable, or their most surprising, but it is their most complex, most interesting, and most rewarding.