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

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