Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sleigh Bells' demented Christmas jingles ring like carols from Hell

What has four legs, jingles, and has steadily been gaining hype in the indie community? Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells raised eyebrows a couple years back with their debut album Treats, which combined heavy metal guitar riffing with sugary sweet vocals backed by infectious indie dance pop.

Unfortunately, the followup, Reign of Terror, fails to live up to the potential of the debut. Once you look past the wigged out song structures, you'll realize Sleigh Bells are still guilty of blinding us with too much flashy pop and not enough substance.

But first, let's try to explain exactly what it is Sleigh Bells do. On initial listen, this music will likely sound chaotic. Imagine looking at a great piece of artwork. Perhaps a watercolor painting, or a pencil sketching done on notebook paper. Now picture someone crumpling it up. As you're eying this crumpled ball, you can see all the lines, shapes and textures are all bent back onto one another and have collapsed together into a big jumbled pile.

That's kind of how this is. Alexis Krauss's airy vocals tend to overlap the background cheerleader shouts in ways that may seem awkward, while the various electronic effects mesh with the guitar parts in a seemingly clumsy manner. With repeated listens your mind will slowly begin to untangle the hodgepodge. At that point it becomes clear how heavily the record relies on strong pop elements, in spite of all the experimentation.

It could be argued that Reign of Terror is little more than Top 40 pop marketed to a hipster audience. Indeed, many of the hooks themselves are strong enough to be featured on mainstream radio. In their defense, this is certainly one of the most unique, and perhaps on initial listens one of the most perplexing albums you'll you'll hear this year. However, Reign of Terror also commits several of mainstream pop's worst tropes. Namely, the album is horribly, horribly repetitive on virtually every track.

I'm not going to be signing up for Krauss's fanclub anytime soon; they should have been left her in whatever girl pop group she was plucked from. Krauss is responsible for overloading the music with bubblegum. And this isn't good girlpop either, ala Best Coast or Dumdum Girls. Everything from her "sha-la-la" girl group delivery on "You Lost Me" to her continual ah-ah's and oohs and ahhs are straight out of the deepest recesses of the girlpop textbook. Every so often she'll actually sound ominous, or mysterious. But again, the music itself is just too bloody repetitive for my taste.

I know. Sleigh Bells are an experimental noise group. Cutting edge, it's said. They're supposed to be above such reproach. But if you listen closely, you'll see that it really isn't as artsy as some would have you believe. Guitarist Derek Miller had a chance to produce truly outstanding instrumental work on this record. Treats was packed with tracks like "Riot Rhythm" and "Straight A's" that conjured a very dark and exotic feel by cleverly making use of their industrial/noise/electronic influences. But this time around they didn't even get that right. The overall production was massively cleaned up, which was probably necessary. But it had the added effect of making the music feel safe and sterile. It's certainly unique, but it lacks the punch that Treats had. 

The lyrics are pretty scatterbrained. Every now and then you'll get a song like "Comeback Kid," which speaks of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But more often you get songs like "You Lost Me," which seems to glorify death, or "Never Say Die," where she keeps repeating random words. Is it supposed to be deep? What exactly does she mean? Nobody really knows, on any of these songs. It's all just such an incoherent jumble. On the first album that worked to some extent, as the bizarre nature of the music lent itself to having equally bizarre lyrics. Now that the sound has been cleaned up, that approach doesn't make as much sense.

When she's actually writing something coherent, her lyrics have a viscous tendency to play on our deepest fears and insecurities. Observe this passage from "Born to Lose;"

Heard you say
In your sleep
Just get on with it 
You were born to lose

She certainly isn't coy. There are moments that make you think Krauss and Miller are capable of writing worthwhile lyrics, but it just doesn't usually come through. 

Some of the better tracks include "Comeback Kid," whose hooks are minor variations of one another, yet play off each other very well. The foot stomping "Demons" is also a pretty nice find, which contains high energy pep rally chants which might make this track a perfect fit for Zumba classes.

You'll be humming the riffs of these songs for the rest of the night, and they'll be stuck in your head all through the workday the next day on a neverending, repeating loop. That gets annoying after awhile.

Ultimately, I can't help but view Reign of Terror  as a watering down of the band's sound. I can see the need to clean up some of the muddiness from Treats, but it feels like an overcorrection and a push towards commercialization. The result is that I can no longer listen to this record. The constant jingling of Sleigh Bells in my head gets to be too much sometimes.

Score: 61/100

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Totally Unauthorized 2012 1st Quarter Report: January - March

I've begun compiling my playlist for 2012, and the plan is to issue quarterly reports running down the best individual tracks. Here are the highlights from the first three months of 2012:


Alcest - Là Où Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles

With their blend of shoegaze, black metal and prog, French outfit Alcest has gained a heady reputation even among those who don't listen to much metal. The music sounds important; the opening riff and vocal work sounds like something that might be the soundtrack for a march into a Nordic battlefield or something. Crushing riffs are complemented by quieter, cleaner guitar work, and the agonized shrieks are offset by beautiful clean vocals. By the time the final notes fade out, you'll feel like you've experienced a lifetime in the course of a single track.

Cloud Nothings - Wasted Days

In raw post-punk tradition, Cloud Nothings bring us the tale of a life where each day goes by faster and faster, with little and less taking place. Dylan Baldi screams his heart (and guts) out on this one, punctuated by a blistering and bleak instrumental build up followed by some of the most raucous vocals this side of Sonic Youth. Make no mistake, it's the closest you'll want to come to the fallout of a life gone down the drain.

Kathleen Edwards - House Full of Empty Rooms

When it comes to living arrangements, Edwards makes a strong case for favoring apartment rental rather than buying a home. The Canadian singer/songwriter weaves a melancholy and pensive tale while describing a relationship that's lost its luster. It's tough to doubt the sincerity of Kathleen's words or voice here.


Goatwhore - In Deathless Tradition

Fast, unrelenting, and brutal, Goatwhore's "In Deathless Tradition" impresses by paying homage to blackened death metal's old guard. Louis B. Falgoust II delivers a ghastly performance, while the guitar battery grinds out one of the best riffs on the album.

Swallow the Sun - This Cut is the Deepest

Finnish doom metallers Swallow the Sun are renowned for unleashing a tidal wave of crushing rage, but here they opt for a softer approach. Mikko Kotamaki's ephemeral vocals float to the surface of the mix, while his band produces a lush backdrop that is melodic and moving. Few bands are capable of measuring the depth of your regret like Swallow the Sun.

Sleigh Bells - Demons

The Brooklyn noise collective's sophomore album Reign of Terror may be getting attention for a slew of pop singles, but this track is just good fun. Grinding guitars complement the amped up cheerleader shouts of Alexis Krauss, which lends itself to being a perfect track for sporting events or Zumba classes.

Brad Mehldau - 26

Brad Mehldau has steadily cemented his position as one of jazz's most exciting artists, and the arrival of his latest critically acclaimed disc is plenty of reason to jump for joy. The notes flow effortlessly from the keys of Mehldau's piano; his playing is evocative, thought provoking, and well constructed. Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard lay down the foundation for joyous music that serves as the perfect soundtrack for the coming of spring.

Soap&Skin - Voyage Voyage

Experimental pianist Anja Plaschg is well known for composing erratic classical music, along with constructing a twisted bed of Apehx Twin inspired electronica, but her hallmark has the emotion she delivers to her music. "Voyage" sounds like it could be part of the soundtrack to a foreign film, with Plaschg's mournful wail setting the tone for an absolutely heart rending tune.

The Big Sleep - Four Wishes

Perhaps one of the greatest indictments of indie rock is that how often it forgets to rock. Brooklyn trio The Big Sleep seeks to remedy this with a slab of dark driving hard rock. Guitarist Danny Barria plays with speed and precision, while Sonya Balchandani seeks to hypnotize you with her vocal work. In the end, the only criminal aspect about the band is how delicious those riffs are.  

Link: The Big Sleep - Four Wishes

Brothertiger - I've Been Waiting

Brothertiger's Golden Years album is an exemplary piece of chillwave, and is also great springtime music. Thick, heavy synthesizer lines are paired with a shimmering, playful melody running over the top, and complemented perfectly with moody vocals. It's a fantastic tune to just close your eyes and drift away to.

Anja Plaschg's Narrow will instill into your soul a spirit of mourning

Tucked away in a corner of Austria lies the little known talent of Anja Plaschg, better known as Soap&Skin. Plaschg began studying classical piano at age six, but her current music career could be termed as anything but traditional. She is quite experimental, often producing a dark, brooding sound that calls to mind the austere majesty of Bjork. Her voice? It isn't exactly pretty, with a very rough and ungainly quality. However, it does display an inner strength and raw passion, which is easy to admire.

Her sense of intensity that set her works apart, and at times cause her to verge on the border of eccentricity. But Plaschg also has a flair for electronica. Aphex Twin has been cited as one of her chief influences, who is certainly known for having a creepy side himself. March 27 saw the release of her half album Narrow, the followup to 2009's delightfully twisted Lovetune for a Vacuum. At only 27 minutes in length, it sometimes feels like you're only getting a halfway look at Plaschg. Still, many of her best qualities can be found here.

The opener, "Vater," features a slow buildup which gets hectic near the end and closes with a dramatic outro. "Wonder" has some nice harmonies, while "Deathmental" focuses on clinging and clanging electronics. "Cradlesong," which speaks of Plaschg's insecurities about the way people view her, also proves she's a powerful lyricist.

Among the more intriguing pieces is "Big Hand Nails Down." It's dark and oppressive electronic work meshes well with the heavy piano chords and her haunting howl of a voice. It possesses an almost industrial edge before lightening up later.

But the clear winner here is "Voyage Voyage," an absolutely heart rending tune, with powerful, breathtaking vocals. An incredible expression of sorrow and regret, I could easily see it being featured as the soundtrack to a foreign film. It makes me picture someone boarding a train never to return, while snowflakes drift to the ground.

Compared to its predecessor, Narrow is much more subdued and somber. Her two albums make an entirely different set of demands on the listener. Lovetune for a Vacuum bubbled and churned like a volcano, showing off the depth of Plaschg's fiery rage. At the same time, it also forced us to put up with a bit of over dramatization at times. I personally liked Soap&Skin for that out there, Bjork-like style, so if you're like me you may have a tough time initially digesting Narrow.

But there's still plenty to process with Narrow, which shows that Plaschg is just as adept communicating emotions from either end of the spectrum.

Score: 79/100