Inspired by the do-it-yourself ethos of the riot grrrl movement, Sleater-Kinney's first albums were deliberately ragged, but they achieved transcendence by rejecting the genre's punk provincialism and women's-studies dourness. Like all great artists, Sleater-Kinney started out as fans of their form: In Carrie Brownstein's guitar playing, you could hear the Gang of Four's wiry tension; in vocalist Corin Tucker's big yelp, the howls of post-punkers like the Raincoats.
The band smoothed over its rough edges for its last album, The Hot Rock, but the critics didn't seem to notice -- they were too busy yammering on about how the band was America's great rock hope. Sleater-Kinney's new album, All Hands on the Bad One, is similarly frustrating. Without the raw passion of their first albums, everything about the album feels familiar: the band's hand-claps production, Brownstein's sirenlike guitar, even Tucker's astonishingly high-pitched vocals. Once strikingly personal, Sleater-Kinney's lyrics are nearly as heavy on abstractions as Pearl Jam's, perhaps because of indie-rock's obsession with obliqueness rather than classic rock's tendency for impersonal grandiosity. Still, the result is the same: rock with little surprise and even less emotional pull.