Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sleigh Bells: A Track-By-Track Analysis

Sleigh Bells are a noise-pop duo from Brooklyn. Already, I can tell you're starting to not pay attention: these days, who isn't in a noise-pop duo from Brooklyn? Especially since they're a male-female duo, you can already guess who sings and who plays all the instruments. The dynamic is typical, as is the story, so why pay attention to this buzzed-about band as opposed to other buzzed-about bands?

The simple reason is this: Sleigh Bells are hard. I'm not talking, like, Mastodon-hard or anything like that. This is pop music, yes, with some of the punchiest, most ear-shattering noises you are likely to hear this year. As a debut album, it has to be compared to something like the Ramones' first release, in that it's often impossible to come up with a comfortable vantage point through which to discuss the toughness of this music. Gnarly guitar noises are a dime a dozen, but Derek Taylor introduces several new tricks to the game. He plays like a novice, but he's always augmented by intense, epic synths, horns played through amplifiers with their speaker cones drilled through, then chomped and compressed in the studio. Meanwhile, singer Alexis Krauss sings normal pop hooks and lyrics. It works more often than it doesn't.

In order to spice up the often staid nature of these track-by-track analyses, I'll provide, in addition to my comments, a list of music that I think resembles corresponding Sleigh Bells tracks in certain, illuminating ways. It will be useful, because in the case of something like Treats, it will often make more sense to link to a track's progenitors than to try to explain it myself. But please feel free to disagree.

1. Tell 'Em

Sounds Like:
Ratatat's pitch-shifted, in-the-red guitar harmonies; air raid sirens (and the Bomb Squad songs that feature them); the industrialized snare-pummeling of Portishead's "Machine Gun"; Faith No More's similarly barnstorming opener "From Out Of Nowhere" (in terms of album agenda-setting).

Treats' opening track establishes the band's sleight of hand rather quickly: elementary guitar riffery filtered through blown-out speakers; stentorian, tension-building beats (at any volume level, it sounds ear-splitting); and off-key lady vocals out in front. "Tell 'Em" isn't one of the album's best songwriting efforts, but as an indicator of Sleigh Bells' ferocious intensity, it's a great statement of headache-inducing purpose.

2. Kids
Sounds Like:
At the beginning, Smashing Pumpkins' Adore-era techno-rock; at the 18-second mark, amphetamine-jacked Swizz Beatz horn samples; some of MIA's spacier half-raps.

"Tell "Em" is intense, for sure, but "Kids" is a whole different kind of blunt instrument. Alternating between punched-up horns and a looser, dreamier vocal section, it also has perhaps the most echo-heavy snapping samples in recorded history. "Kids" is clearly pop, in some demented manner, yet I'll be damned if it isn't among the hardest things I've ever heard. This will be a common observation throughout the remainder of Treats.

3. Riot Rhythm

Sounds Like:
What the title suggests; guitar work reminiscent of The Fall or PiL's Keith Levene; Neptunes beats (particularly for the Clipse); beat-flipping a la "A Milli."

Like the first track, "Riot Rhythm" sounds at first like more of an abrasive put-on, with a lack of balance between that grinding guitar figure and Alexis Krauss' vocals. But I think I like Krauss as a screamer more than a singer, and it's amazing that Sleigh Bells can keep up this level of energy after three songs.

4. Infinity Guitars
Sounds Like:
Dave Davies in chrysalis; the empty space between Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," Nirvana's "Very Ape," and the distorted, chanty vocals of Angus Andrew; rap battles between cheerleaders; No More Tears drums.

A collection of clipped, lo-fi bar chords and full-throated chants, barreling into a stadium rock closer at the end, "Infinity Guitars" is ironically-named--there's only one guitar present that I can hear. Instead, a riff that could have been lifted from Nuggets (or the Eagles of Death Metal!) basically acts as a placeholder between bouts of aforementioned screaming and cooing.

5. Run The Heart
Sounds Like:
HEALTH, basically. Plus maybe a little bit of that Timbaland-Crystal Castles accidental connection. Every mash-up artist has a track that sounds like this, at least in theory.

For Sleigh Bells, I guess this counts as more of a mood piece--the percussion is dirty and deep but not penetrative, and Krauss' wordless vocalizations are chopped in a manner that makes them of more use to the rhythm of the piece than the melody. I'm a sucker for the sound of cascading synths (which is why I'm a Timbaland fan), and "Run The Heart" has plenty of that, plus those now unmistakable crunched guitar loops. When the two are in tandem, the results are very weird.

6. Rachel
Sounds Like:
Cocteau Twins; If the end of Hot Chip's recent dirge "Slush" had its orchestration replaced with Jock Jams synthesizers.

There's a quality to these ethereal (sorry for the overused buzzword, but it fits) vocals that seems to have a strong precedent in something, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what (such problems were numerous when listening to this album for the first time). A lot of what I said about "Run The Heart" could apply here, except this seems like more of a cool placeholder than the song that preceded it. There's an appealing melody at the center of this maelstrom, but it never changes or develops, and basically just ends after two minutes.

7. Rill Rill
Sounds Like:
Funkadelic's "Can You Get To That" (for obvious reasons!) filtered by the Avalanches; a (vague) quotation of T.I. "What You Know"; any song with a lady vocalist seductively chanting "oh, oh" for twenty seconds or more.

A clear highlight, and probably the place to go if you're interested in Sleigh Bells' sonics but can't stand the headphone-busting nature of their other hits. There isn't much to this song other than a liberal quotation of the aforementioned Funkadelic track, plus some church bells or something for dramatic emphasis, but what really makes "Rill Rill" kill is Krauss' criminally alluring vocals, of which I can only repeat what Youtube commenter PowerInAUnion says regarding Krauss' live showcase: "crushing so hard." Do I feel similar, and if so, is that relevant? I'm sorry, but sometimes it can't not be.

The point is that "Rill Rill" lodged itself in my mind after a mere one (1) listen and refused to leave, which doesn't happen very often.

8. Crown On The Ground
Sounds Like:
Previous track on the album "Kids"; The Go! Team at their most effervescent; Jack White's squealier guitar moments; the beginning of the Butthole Surfers song "Weber" (pretty sure that last one is unintentional).

Sleigh Bells' big hit--or at least, it would be, if it wasn't so punishing. In a perfect world, I imagine this topping the Billboard charts and signifying the beginning of a newer, more confrontational pop style, because those horns, sampled or screwed or however they were recorded, absolutely kill it. Great pop tracks are always as much about the tension as they are about the release, and "Crown on the Ground" is deadly calibrated in that regard. No other track better illustrates the synergy between the two Sleigh Bells auteurs (whereas many of the other songs are good, but would have been just as good switching out one for the other).

9. Straight A's
Sounds Like:
The Liars (with the creepy ambience removed and replaced with more punishing volume); Kap Bambino; what I imagine happy hardcore to resemble, in my dreams.

At 1:30 or so, this bears every hallmark of being a studio goof or filler, but damn if it doesn't prove a cathartic experience even after the onslaught of "Crown On The Ground" before it. Absolutely not a good place to start if you're looking to get into Sleigh Bells, unless you're into one-off punk ditties like Sonic Youth's "Nic Fit" or Blur's "We've Got A File On You." Not a shred of poppiness in this one, either, which makes it unique.

10. A/B Machines
Sounds Like:
A Place To Bury Strangers; the beginning of LCD Soundsystem's "Sound Of Silver"; the guitar style of Bryan Gregory (from the Cramps); Outkast's "B.O.B." slowed down to half its original speed.

The problem with most of the songs on Treats (if you choose to think of it as a problem) is that Derek Miller doesn't seem to be interested in developing more than one or two ideas per song, which is why it's good that most of the tracks don't go past the 3-minute mark. This one does, and you can definitely tell when exactly it wears out its welcome. But that's pop, I guess. Not a highlight for me.

11. Treats
Sounds Like:
The heavily tremelo'd guitar figure #1 from the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now"; one of Metallica's slow-burners. Other than that, you've got to help me out, dear readers: have you ever heard anything as hard as this?

I should add that the one other exception to the three-minute rule is this killer of a closing track, which hints that Sleigh Bells' sonic palette may be capable of expanding as Derek Miller's songwriting ambitions grow. This is all booming bass and screeching lead lines, anchored by drum samples that couldn't be more leaden and grinding if they tried. It's so hyper-compressed that your head might pop. So I'm giving you fair warning: you will like this track, if you are anything like me, and furthermore you will play the heck out of it and hope the second album sounds more like this. If not, Treats will have a short shelf life, no matter the initial buzz.


  1. Not too much to add, since I haven't heard this album, though now the ante has been upped for track-by-track posts. "Nic Fit", incidentally, was an Untouchables song before it was an SY one.

  2. I was aware of the Untouchables song--I was just using it as an example of alternative rock bands having a really short, punky song as a palette cleanser. Another example could be like Nirvana's "tourette's" or Soundgarden's "Ty Cobb." Those would both have been better examples I guess.