"EYE CREAM and thigh cream/how 'bout a get high cream?" hardly ranks among the great opening lines in rock and roll, but that's how Sleater-Kinney decided to start their new record. Frankly, we've come to expect better.

Gone is the wonderful vocal interplay between Corin Tucker's forceful wail and Carrie's Brownstein's deadpan snarl. Instead we get slick harmonies that sound like every other post-Breeders girl band, and the same guitars that were so furious and noisy on Dig Me Out don't touch a distortion pedal, preferring uninteresting studio gloss to roughshod basement atmosphere.

I suppose you can't fault a band for wanting to add production value, but I will anyway. Sleater-Kinney were a great lo-fi band: shouted vocals, dissonant guitars, and confrontational lyrics. None of these things cried out to be made slick and shiny, and in fact seemed to scorn anything that was. But John Goodmanson's production pushes this punk band dangerously close to glam -- the guitars are showy and less energetic, and on vocals Tucker overacts and overreaches through most of the record. How did this band go so quickly from 1977 at CBGB's to 1977 FM radio?

There are still a few good songs here, because when it comes down to it, Sleater-Kinney are still a good band. AHOTBO isn't a disaster, but it's certainly a misstep. MIKE VAGO

SLEATER-KINNEY ARE STILL as impassioned and ennobling as ever on their fifth album. When Corin and Carrie's voices collide in the higher reaches in almost inarticulate harmony, you want to strike out blindly -- face a blurry mess of tears. The guitars are still frantic, the words as challenging and oblique as ever. Still, it sounds like Sleater-Kinney are one of the few bands left who can invest rock 'n' roll with any meaning -- precisely because they're so earnest, naive, humorless. We can leave the crap to the postmodern arch ironists, Beck and his motley crew. Rock -- and life and love and all those concerns in between -- still matters to the Northwest's most inspirational trio. One song here towers above the rest. The scathing "#1 Must Have" literally wails about the homogenization and marketing of every facet of youth culture -- in Sleater-Kinney's case, their personal belief systems and friends' lifestyles. "Now who would ever have believed this riot grrrl's a cynic?" the band laments, "but they took our ideas to the marketing stars." It's so hard to fight when retreating is so much more attractive. This is a great album -- one of 2000's most vital, doubtless. No change there, then. EVERETT TRUE

THERE ARE GIRLS WHO haven't heard a Sleater-Kinney record. And even more shocking, some who just flat out don't care for the band. These girls are often accused of not liking "girl bands." Usually by boys.

Now why would a girl not like a girl band? Who hasn't slammed on the black-leather tough cuff, raised fist to the heavens, and woken up the next morning in a neck brace because Joan Jett's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)" came on the jukebox? What former sex-crazed, cigarette-smoking, school-ditching, borrowed-Mom's-car-to-do-the-grocery-shopping-but-really-headed-to-the-mall teenager doesn't remember turning to the back seat, turning up the volume on "We Got the Beat," and rocking her girlfriends down the highway? Which one of us didn't have the head cheerleader find our "Tina and I are lovers and pass this diary back and forth" journal in first period, discover at lunch that the same rah-rah had also stolen Chad (the soccer player we were keeping on the side), and then run all the way home to Stevie Nicks and a carton of Marlboro Reds?

For the kids who turn down $100 to scalp their 4 x 6 inches of carpet when Sleater-Kinney play a Tower in-store, more power. Just remember, some girls aren't "feelin'" Sleater-Kinney. Maybe we're too old. Maybe we're out of the loop. Maybe we simply don't know what the kids want anymore. Whatever the reason, we're still out there -- in the bars, in the malls, and in the bedrooms. Waiting. TANYA RICHARDSON

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I wrote in these pages that Sleater-Kinney offered me the best and only evidence I'd been able to find for the existence of God in this life. Their live shows and records give me a view on a kind of holy perfection that makes me literally need to jump up and down to express my utter joy for their existence, and for existence at all. The Hot Rock was not my favorite, and though the band's greatness wasn't diminished for me, the record did make me doubt my cosmological fervor. AHOTBO -- with its new-wave-no-wave riffs, embrace of pop harmony, vocal adventurousness, crafty rawness, sonic teeth, lyrical tongue, and utterly unabashed fucking rock 'n' roll splendor -- reaffirms my faith in Sleater-Kinney so handily that The Hot Rock begins to shine in a retrospective glow. For those were the times that they carried me. SEAN NELSON

IT TOOK A WHILE for this one to kick in. Then one Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in my living room having the day's second cup of coffee and listening to the record, when it took hold. Specifically, the last cut, "The Swimmer" -- I was in love with someone named Susan at the time, and I could've sworn, with its oceanic rippling guitars and Corin's impassioned vocals, that this song was about what I was going through. And in the end that's what I like about 'em -- I can feel inside their wounds. This stuff stings with pain; it's believable; and the band possesses the musical dynamics to back it up. So yeah, it's another winner. JOE S. HARRINGTON

I SUPPOSE MANY bands have their mixed blessings. Certainly Corin Tucker's voice put Sleater-Kinney on the map. But they can be better than that, as they proved, finally making good on their hype with the honest and daring The Hot Rock. On that album, it appeared that Tucker had learned what so many vocalists are too self-obsessed to notice: that just because you can belt, or hiccup, or hit a high C or whatever your special vocal trademark is, does NOT mean that you should do it every fucking line of every song. Celine Dion does that. And on AHOTBO, so does Corin Tucker.

So take a risk, reach a little: Pavement's Wowee Zowee; the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; Dylan goes electric. But then you flop. What do you do? You move forward, and wait for the world to catch up and appreciate your genius. Do you return to the formula that you tried to throw off? NO. That's chickenshit. But that's what Sleater-Kinney have done, and it's embarrassing. By reneging on their own artistic statement, they've second-guessed their way into a lousy album.

AHOTBO is cowardly, disingenuous, predictable, overproduced, trendy, mainstream, condescending, and terribly disappointing. ERIN FRANZMAN

FOR THE SAKE of comparison, I listened to each Sleater-Kinney album in chronological order before writing this review. Not surprisingly, the band that's just released AHOTBO bears little relation to the band that released their first, self-titled album in 1995. Personally, I'm more a fan of Sleater-Kinney's propulsive, up-tempo numbers; I've even had dreams of doing the hand jive to "Little Babies." So I can't wait to hear songs like "Youth Decay" and "The Professional" in concert, but I'm not yet won over by AHOTBO's final tracks, which slowly grind the proceedings to a halt. (Though "Milkshake 'n' Honey" has an awesome couplet about ill-fated luv -- the only kind there is, really: "I've always been a guy with a sweet tooth/And that girl was just like a king-sized candy bar." Ah, yes.) GILLIAN G. GAAR

NORMALLY WHEN I take an instant disliking to an album, it's not likely that one of its songs remains on continuous play in my brain for an entire weekend. But such was the case with "Ballad of the Ladyman," off Sleater-Kinney's misguided foray into '70s radio rock. AHOTBO opens with "Ballad..." and it sets the tone for what is to follow: vaguely swampy translations of smart-girl angst set to tough-girl rock and roll. It's a proud song that grows more vital with each listening, sneaking its way into your subconscious via seductive drumming, and not one, but several effective hooks.

Sadly, the rest of AHOTBO never lives up to that opening track. The new rock sound is sloppy and half-conceived, in that typically arrogant Oly fashion that seems to think partial emulation equals improving on the original inspiration. "Youth Decay" comes closest, with panicked rushes, barreling guitars, and heady harmonies, but vocalist Corin Tucker's love-it-or-hate-it vibrating singing style fails her when the song demands a strong, clear voice. It's a near miss, but a miss just the same. "#1 Must Have" is a tattered mess at best, despite its telling lyric "This riot grrrl's a cynic" -- another case of missed opportunity on a record that resonates with disappointing also-rans. "Leave You Behind" is sweet, chimey, and lush with Janet Weiss' excellent, recognizable harmonies, but what it's doing on this album is a puzzle better left to the legions of all-forgiving, dedicated fans who surely won't give a damn about its oddness here. KATHLEEN WILSON

AFTER REACHING THEIR artistic zenith with The Hot Rock (a statement I'll defend to anyone at anytime), Sleater-Kinney had two options: continue to refine that record's mathematically jagged rhythms and lyrical intensity, and wind up in some admirable but uncomfortable place entirely off the pop music map; or take a calculated step back and dish out some rock 'n' roll fun. Here's Plan B, and what's lost in intensity (which isn't much) is more than compensated for by the pleasure of hearing rock's fiercest overachievers breathe out for once. There's a reason these songs sound great on first listen, and if it's the same reason that people are gonna bitch about this record, remember that they'd be bitching just as loudly had the ladies chose Plan A. Sleater-Kinney have yet to make a perfect album (each record has its dud, plus one or two runners-up). Happily, AHOTBO also has its share of the singular, indelible songs that make each Sleater-Kinney offering a must-own. DAVID SCHMADER

I'M REALLY SICK OF kicky, clean girl music from Olympia or Portland or wherever else it is that kicky, clean girls wear stockings and flannel and dye their hair red and black and get really intellectual tattoos. So enough with Sleater-Kinney already. I'm sure I'll be banned from Seattle forever if I say this, but the whole Pacific Northwest vibe is starting to feel just a little too 20th century. AHOTBO is full of the usual "I'm-so-college-educated-and-self-conscious" references to riot grrrls and grrrl bands and candy, and something that I think is supposed to be anguish, but ends up coming across as a kind of atonal version of the Go Gos' infamous 1980s party music. Listening to yet another vibrato shriek from the Sleater-Kinneyoids didn't give me goose bumps like Kathleen Hanna's screams once did. It didn't make me feel like an exquisitely rabid psycho the way Courtney Love's early music did. All I could think was, don't these girls ever get high or get laid or go crazy? Or do they just sit around reading Susan Brownmiller and Katha Pollitt all day? Don't get me wrong: I love Brownmiller and Pollitt to death. But I want to READ them, not listen to them sing. C'mon Sleater-Kinney, music like yours should be visceral, powerful -- like a fist in the cooch. It should make teenage girls buy strap-on dildos and scream "SMASH THE STATE!" at their fascist high-school teachers. All this album is going to do is inspire a bunch of flower-picking and heterosexual angst. Yawn. ANNALEE NEWITZ