BK duo Sleigh Bells are one of the most hyped indie bands since bloggers gushed over Vampire Weekend’s African/indie/yacht rock in late 2007. Sleigh Bells’ buzz built over a series of live shows, including an electrifying performance at SXSW this March, as well as a handful of singles on their Myspace page.
Now that their debut, Treats, is out on M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. Recordings, it’s not hard to see what all the excitement was about. Treats’ opening track, “Tell ‘Em,” begins with Derek Miller’s metal guitar and snippy hip hop beats, combined with what sounds like a machine gun going off. After 40 seconds of trying to process all this, singer Alexis Krauss starts in with her wispy voice, adding a little Ciara meets Elizabeth Fraser to the mix. It’s prime Sleigh Bells, drawing on Miller’s past in hardcore band Poison the Well, and Krauss’ background in teen pop group RubyBlue, while adding a hip hop backbone layered with heavy doses of industrial noise. At their best, Sleigh Bells perfectly balance indie rock, punk rock, hip hop, and noise, creating music that draws on existing elements yet sounds totally fresh.
So are they worth the hype? A lot of the excitement about the band has to do with the fact that they have a kinetic, original sound. A certain degree of that excitement is due to the fact that Alexis Krauss is easy on the eyes and looks good in spandex. Her sex appeal comes across on record as well, with her grunts, sighs, playground chants, and coquettishly sweet singing.
The haters are chiming in as well, mostly with a chorus of “Sleigh Bells aren’t THAT great,” and “They’re too noisy!” To the first point I’d say that no one ever lives up to the hype. It’s not their fault that there hasn’t been that much else this year that really got critics excited. Criticisms about how noisy the band are have more merit.
This is a very, very noisy record. Poison the Well was one of those growly hardcore bands, and Miller is obviously channeling that love of chaos with Sleigh Bells. The guitars sound like chainsaws, the drum machines layer industrial cacophony over their 808s, and it’s all cranked to eleven. “Crown On the Ground” and “Straight A’s” both sound blown out, as if they were being played too loud on shitty speakers. There is a layer of distortion and grime over the album that is okay with crumby ear bud headphones, but grating on a decent sound system.
I’m hoping that in the future Sleigh Bells tone down the noise, because they are at their most interesting when they quiet down. The chanting and grinding guitars of “Infinity Guitars” are fun, but the band is better when Krauss’ pop leanings win out over Miller’s angry hardcore dudeism, like on the gorgeous “Run the Heart” and “Rill Rill.” Krauss is a great singer but a bad rapper, so she should drop her attempts at hip hop and channel her inner diva. Less Ke$ha, more Rhianna.
So, are Sleigh Bells worthy of the critical adoration they somewhat prematurely received? Do they have another album in them, or is this a one-off, flavor-of-the-month deal? I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m having too much fun blasting Treats.