If Sleigh Bells was a Halloween costume, it would be a zombie cheerleader. Really — the band is known for their combination of sinister guitars and sticky-sweet pop vocals. And this month, they’re back with their third album, “Bitter Rivals”, from young label Mom + Pop Music.
Dissecting the sound of the band becomes easy with a little insight into the lives of its members. Alexis Krauss, the band’s lead singer, began singing in a pop band in junior high. While that band didn’t find much success, Krauss had other pursuits in the entertainment industry: she even appeared in an ad on Nickelodeon at one point. Still, by the time college came around, she had shifted her focus over to academics. She studied political science and pursued a Rhodes Scholarship. After graduation, she began teaching fourth grade at a school in the Bronx. Singing was reserved for weddings and karaoke nights, and her talent had been locked away with the microphone.
Derek Miller, on the other hand, was playing gigs anywhere that would take him. Signed by Atlantic Records during his high school years, the guitarist had long been associated with the hardcore and metal scene. But this early success was followed by a lull in his recording output — he roamed around the country bussing tables and bartending. And that’s how he met Krauss, serving her at a Brooklyn restaurant where she was getting dinner with her mom.
Things took off quickly from there. Miller had already written about half of “Treats”, with several tracks ready for recording. Krauss’ creative input was limited to singing and creating an image for the band. But it was that magical combination of her sticky sweet voice and Miller’s harsh distorted guitars that brought in fans rapidly. Within months, the band had a coveted spot in New York’s CMJ music festival and had been signed with M.I.A.’s label N.E.E.T. The tracks were getting air on “Gossip Girl” and in feature films. The band’s signature combination of pop vocals and metal guitars received praise from ninth-grade rebels to the most stringent critics.
Two years and a sophomore album later, “Bitter Rivals” turns up the vocals and finally gives Alexis Krauss a shot at co-writing. Production-wise, “Rivals” sounds like a maximized version of the previous two albums. The textures are fuller and more chaotic. Even the comparative easy listening of “To Hell with You” features sonic blips and lusher beats, both absent from previous albums. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the producer, Andrew Dawson, was also accredited with work on Kanye West’s “Yeezus”.
Thanks to Krauss, the songcraft on “Rivals” has a distinctly pop feeling. The album begins with a fergalicious beat composed of sighing and squeaking. And in certain choruses, such as “Young Legends,” the warped guitars drop out for a more mainstream, synth-driven texture. “Tiger Kit,” with its verse-chorus-solo structure and Miley-esque lyrics (“can’t be tamed”), has a lightness uncharacteristic of previous albums. This lightness lends the track a degree of listenability that, along with its catchy chorus, could bring it into the top 40. The next track, “24” could pose as Blink-182 with a little reworking. And the closing track, “Love Sick,” could blend in on Katy Perry’s PRISM. But this transmutability is not all new; after all, “Treats” offers listeners the crushing metal of “Straight A’s” and the indie pop of “Rill Rill”. But there are still plenty of metal guitars and modal shred sessions. So the band has a certain uncertainty of genre that goes hand in hand with the unexpected combination of former good-girl Alexis Krauss and rock veteran Derek Miller.
More than ever on “Rivals,” the death metal zombie and the perky cheerleader come together in one band. And this identity crisis, this swaying between doe eyes and raccoon eyes, is all too relatable. The very first noise on the album is a cartoon-ish “Hiiii” followed by what seems to be the unsheathing of a sword. And in Krauss’ own lyrics on the final track, she says that she’s “sending gummy bears to the electric chair.” On “Rivals,” the tension between the brutality and the cutesiness is turned up.
But for all of Sleigh Bell’s musical bipolarity, there is a lot of consistency between albums. Though poppier and more narrative, “Rivals” is really right on the trajectory set by previous albums. The question is whether we call this a style, a formula, or a gimmick. Some critics have suggested that these terms apply in order to Sleigh Bells’ releases–”Treats” as an innovative new sound, “Reign” as a development of earlier formulas, and “Rivals” as an overuse of that same formula. And though it would be unfair to expect a musical metamorphosis in just three years, the lack of honest development is a little disappointing. The band that was revolutionary in 2010 has failed to maintain that streak of brilliance. And for a band with so much initial promise, “Rivals” suggests that the band’s innovation can only strike once. Perhaps the development of their formula — Miller’s grungy guitars and Krauss’ sugary vocals — was accidental brilliance. And it doesn’t indicate the genius that fans anticipated after the release of “Treats.” Some critics suggest that they have simply recycled their initial spark all over again.
So are Sleigh Bells brilliant musicians or is the band’s signature sound just a gimmick? For many, the combination of angry, frustrated guitars and light pop vocals will always have appeal — and so “Rivals” is inevitably a triumph. Still, it relies heavily on the innovations of previous work. After all, one winning formula is not a justification for a sophomore and junior album. So I fear that in another year or so, Sleigh Bells’ zombie-cheerleader sound will be graduating into musical irrelevance.