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album review: sleigh bells, treats

I’ve been a fan of electronic noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells since long before that pesky USA Skins promotion. They became big last summer when I was working at an online record store in Brooklyn, thanks to a few key live performances and media spots, and suddenly I heard that infectious noise pop in every dive bar I stepped into. I was initially drawn to Sleigh Bells because the music made perfect sense. It is a total mindfuck similar to the oppressive heat that is New York City in July: it’s loud, somewhat confusing, complex, genre bending and frightfully catchy.

My initial fascination has never faded, even after months of blasting Sleigh Bells’ 2010 album Treats more times than is socially acceptable to admit. I am continually interested because besides somehow evoking every image I’ve ever had of Brooklyn, this all-encompassing music demands attention because it’s so, so new.

Yes, okay, I admit that I too hear M.I.A. and early Yeah Yeah Yeahs on some of the tracks (especially Crown on the Ground), but the juxtaposition between sweet-voiced lead singer Alexis Krauss and hardcore instrumentation of guitarist Derek E. Miller is something that hasn’t been done this well in a long time. 2010 was the year of chillwave, filled with awesome bands like Neon Indian and Deerhunter. The introverted, dreamy mellowness of chillwave is the single most defining element of the genre; that’s exactly what’s so attractive about it. Standing on the complete opposite end of the proverbial line, then, we have kickass music from an unlikely duo that is individual, rebellious and captures the soul of New York. Treats is a quintessential not-background-album that makes sense in a lot of different situations. The album has the same kind of empowering feeling that true punk, good gangster rap and classic rock god music has. I like it when I’m bored at work, I like it when I’m in the mood to party like the Skins kids, I like it when I’m walking down the street and I like it when I’m cooking dinner.

My favorite song off the album is (of course) the slower song “Rill Rill”. Call me commercial, but Sleigh Bells’ style is most effervescent when it’s against a quieter backdrop. When you turn down the DJ effects and stop focusing on sounding ‘fun’, it’s easy to forget why Sleigh Bells is music of my generation – “Rill Rill” is more technically focused and lyrically perceptible than any other song on Treats.

There are points on Treats where this new sound doesn’t always work. “Infinity Guitars” dangerously straddles the line between genius and garbage. I like the song so much and feel pretty cool when it’s on and know I can get down with it, but the noise explosion at the end doesn’t add anything artistic. I’m all for using bursts of sound if it helps the overall song, but the last 30 seconds of this song serves mainly as competition to the two minutes that preceded it. The “noise” switches from “pop” to “hardcore” in a way that almost hurts to listen to.

Another track that I think walks the dividing line too closely is “Riot Rhythm”. These two songs share very similar melody and arrangement and actually recall each other, which is something Sleigh Bells does a lot throughout Treats. Perhaps the worst song off the album, in my humble opinion, is “Straight A’s”. I’m tempted to skip it most of the time because it’s just too much to handle, especially with headphones (side note: hope I didn’t destroy all my cred by admitting how much I was never a hXc kid). As time goes on and the band develops artistically, I have a feeling songs like this will appear less and less frequently.

However, when the band succeeds, it really succeeds. Songs like “Run the Heart” perfectly capture the essence of why the juxtaposition of styles in Sleigh Bells is so amazing: it features catchy, breathless vocals in the face of complex, electronic arrangements. The beat builds up and breaks down like a wave crashing over itself many times throughout the 2 minutes and 41 seconds, and I’m left wanting more. All the action in such a short period of time made me ponder a few things:

  • Who ARE these people?
  • I need to listen to more
  • And perhaps most importantly, is this what music has become in the age of digitization?

Further destroying my credibility, I’m going to admit to you all that I used to worry a lot about my generation. An incessantly lazy attitude permeates so much of young America’s culture, and I don’t think it’s OK. The rise of the internet has had strange and interesting effects on most of the people I know. Speaking on the whole, we don’t work as hard as our parents did, we pay more attention to having fun than anything else and we are more narcissistic than ever before. Treats is the first album I’ve heard that so perfectly matches this phenomenon. Sleigh Bells has managed to take the best of hipster culture, punk culture, over-production in the studio, electronic arrangements and pop vocals and turn it into something that is entirely their own.

The music is so thoroughly postmodern that is can only happen right now, at the juncture in time. At the end of Treats, I feel like I’ve just watched a David Lynch film or read something by Paul Auster. This music is so aware of itself that it borders on self-deprecation, but in its essence, Treats is just plain cool.

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