Intersections posts

Album Review: Sleigh Bells play with pop on ‘Bitter Rivals’

Originally published Tuesday, Oct. 8th, 2013, at Intersections.

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tl;dr: Alexis Krauss finally gets to sing, and it is glorious. A duo known for power chords and dense hip-hop beats takes a turn into melodies — and it works.
Worth your download: “Young Legends”, “Bitter Rivals”, “Sing Like a Wire,” “To Hell with You”

We all know the story: Hardcore metal guitarist boy meets rockstar vocalist girl, they spend two albums throwing power chords and kickdrums onto a riotous, railing female vocal line and we all collectively fall under Sleigh Bells’ spell. Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss have spent the last three years making high-octane power-pop, flagrantly ignoring the idea of radio-friendliness and opting instead for fastidiously composed albums of really, really intense sound. It’s not that Sleigh Bells took ideas from disparate genres and simply stitched them together — they took the barriers between metal, electronic and hip-hop and knocked them down. It hadn’t worked for anyone before them, and three years after debut album Treats, they’re still somehow irresistible and unique.

It’s not that Miller and Krauss are resting on their laurels at the top of the game, though — they’re still very much the genrebending innovators they were in 2010. With Bitter Rivals, the duo takes a distinct step towards something new and potentially more terrifying, with a wider margin of error: ’90s girl-group pop, R&B, those genres that take melodies over straight sound. In my view, it works.

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say: I’ve got a melodic line from a Sleigh Bells song stuck in my head. In my case, it’s the chorus from “To Hell With You”, in which Alexis Krauss gets to do something she didn’t get to do on Treats or Reign of Terror: belt. If nothing else, Bitter Rivals teaches us this: Alexis Krauss is a talented pop vocalist who can do more than whisper over Miller’s layered riff maelstroms and scream over kickdrums. Miller’s sonic tricks are for the first time accompanying rather than driving the track. In a refreshing experiment, Krauss’s vocal range is firmly in the front seat.

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That’s sort of what most of Bitter Rivals feels like: an experiment. From title track and lead single “Bitter Rivals” forth, the album veers through largely forgettable Treats and Reign of Terror throwbacks before stumbling onto something great: pop.

On “Sing Like a Wire”, Krauss evokes Michael Jackson. Album standout “Young Legends” smacks of the girl-group pop of the ’90s and early ’00s. I could easily see the vocal line in “You Don’t Get Me Twice” over a Big Band doo-wop or jazz set instead of the riot-grrl kick-stomp it employs. I’ve always been enraptured by Sleigh Bells albums as productions to be picked apart — ultra-dense Reign of Terror gave me riffs and hooks to follow for days. Bitter Rivals gives me something new: a leaner, smarter, more measured dose of the sonic overload we’re used to hearing, paired with melodies that are full-formed for the first time. I dig.

Bitter Rivals was released today on Mom + Pop Records.

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Track-by-track

1. “Bitter Rivals”
I think this track might start in someone’s front yard. A dog barks in the background and Krauss giggles coquettishly before Miller’s stadium-stomping guitar riffs explode onto the scene. It feels like a wink-nod to what we’ve known of Sleigh Bells: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Krauss snarls. The sonic drive here is reminiscent of the instant listenability of Reign of Terror‘s “Comeback Kid” — or Eminem’s recent Berzerk. 

2. “Sugarcane”
This sounds like the entire back half of Reign of Terror. Dense, headspace metal with Krauss sprinkled in between riffs.

3. “Minnie”
Heavy, thudding and built for show stages, this track loses me partway through with a misfired pacing. The stray notes of tinkling piano and acoustic strum briefly held my interest, but the track never really coalesces the way it should.

4. “Sing Like a Wire”
This is where the album really starts for me. Krauss coos over a stuttering synth a la Michael Jackson before the track explodes into a classic Miller headbanging number. Krauss’s melodic line keeps you right along that edge.

5. “Young Legends”
Easily the standout track of the album. The singsong catchiness and agile melodic lines take me back to Britney, Madonna and the best of ’90s pop, but it’s still grounded on Miller’s punchy production.

6. “Tiger Kit”
Miller’s guitar hooks come back to the forefront for this romp, but Krauss’s vocals gets equal play, dipping and weaving around a bouncy guitar shred. Still, it’s undeniably a filler track.

7. “You Don’t Get Me Twice”
“You don’t get me twice,” Krauss snarls over a stuttering, crunchy guitar riff. The track flips between this killer line and a more forgettable “Rill Rill”-type vocals-over-descending-line refrain. Also killer: the closing “maybe if you ask me nice.”

8. “To Hell with You”
This is a ballad in disguise, two steps away from the syrupy laments you hear from lovelorn girls at piano bars (“Don’t turn your back on me / Wait and see / I’ll go to hell with you / Here’s the proof”). I can’t wait to hear the covers for that one, and I can’t wait for Krauss to do a stripped version — for NPR’s Tiny Desk, perhaps?

9. “24”
This is built on a keys cascade, hearkening back to Reign of Terror again with layers and layers of sound.

10. “Love Sick”
Here the album comes together: Krauss’s vocal truly drives this track, bringing Miller’s lyrics out from the shadows of his sound. “The pleasure of your company, look what it’s done to me / there’s a heart in my chest where a hole used to be / there’s a hole in my chest where a heart used to be” — It’s a great sign-off track, a great parting shot.

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