There’s a flip side to this post-mashup, instant access generation and its orgy of influences, one that has cultivated a new standard that we now use to weigh music’s relevance and irrelevance. While fans and critics paddle into the wave that Stereogum’s Chris DeVille calls “the monogenre,” the adage of questioning whether nothing’s sacred should be updated for 2013 to ask, “Is nothing not sacred?”
Sleigh Bells have rarely been talked about in the same terms as recent success stories HAIM and Lorde, but the duo of Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller have been blurring the lines of rock and pop (as well as art and trash) for two albums, both of which maintain their charms after repeat listens. The duo’s appeal is given a Bush Push by their firebomb live shows, concerts in which the songs seem secondary to the lights, the energy, and the Marshall stacks.
Bitter Rivals could be explained as playing to Sleigh Bells’ strengths, but mostly it gets stuck in the weaker aspects of their previous albums, busying up the mercifully brief tracks with unnecessary filler, and definitively showing the dangers of nostalgia taken too far, with nu metal serving as a warning for pop punk, and freestyle, and whatever else might next resurface. When Craig Finn said “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with new wave for a second time,” who would have thought that a decade later we would be subbing “anything” into that sentiment?
It’s telling that, despite the late ’90s radio-approved rap-rock worn on the project’s sleeve, few were busting out Korn albums to try to make sense of Treats. But, we probably should have. They actually might have shown us what was to come, as many of those groups, from Limp Bizkit, to Staind, to the aforementioned Korn all followed a similar pattern of three albums into the spotlight, their third being a success in terms of attention, but also a signifier of the end of people caring in quite the same way. Bitter Rivals fits this bill, with many fans infatuated enough to enjoy the record despite its flaws, then easily moving on with a skeptical disinterest for their next outing.
Now, sure, nu metal may be uncool, but that doesn’t mean Sleigh Bells isn’t a good band. And, their first two albums were most enjoyable when they went far away from their memorable style. Whether it was a mid-tempo anthem like “Rill Rill” or a near-dance track in “Comeback Kid”, this third album would have been the right time to push further forward. Though at times they seem to be expanding their work, as on “Sugarcane” and “Love Sick”, the band falters, biting too much from their own previous attempts at growth, “Comeback Kid” and “Rill Rill” respectively.
And, those are the most redeemable moments. Bitter Rivals lacks the person in the room that should be looking at the music with a critical eye. Had someone done that, we could have gone our whole existence without hearing the title track, which begins the album with the following: a cheery girl saying “hi” in a patronizing manner, the sound of a sword being unsheathed, the strum of amplified acoustic guitar, a finger snap, Krauss softly whining a melody like a sad poodle, actual dog barks, and the opening lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times/ I had to kill the new sheriff in town.” If you make it through the shock and awe of that verse to the Prince-influenced chorus, the hook gives a little back for the effort. But, the worst of these times trumps the best.
Krauss has offered the occasional hip-hop cadence to go along with her inked-up bubblegum melodies over all three albums, but Bitter Rivals leans so heavily on the style that it’s tempting to remember it as a basic pillar of the first two Sleigh Bells albums, when in fact it was usually more of a change of pace. “Minnie” is a prime offender, again with the teasing, child-like vocals, and again with the over-the-top aggression that wanes with each cheerleading chant braided into the mix.
“It’s so terrifying being the American dream,” Krauss sings in “You Don’t Me Twice”. It’s a statement she repeats alongside lyrical white flags like “You don’t get me twice/ I put your heart in a vice.” Considering the opening moments of the song and the entirety of the next one, in which Michael Jackson shows his face stylistically, Sleigh Bells may be tapped into Americans right now, but inconsequential commentary on the American dream doesn’t count as growth.
In a recent interview, Miller said of writing albums, “The only way for us to move forward creatively is to keep making them and putting them out.” Perhaps the “moving forward” part is still to come, but for now, the band’s insistence on Bitter Rivals’ difference from their past work is only evidenced in Krauss’ declaration of this as a more “positive” album. Otherwise, Sleigh Bells have essentially put together a 30-minute homage to Kid Rock’s “Cowboy”, and proven two to be the magic number of Sleigh Bells albums that can be enjoyed before something’s gotta give.
Essential Tracks: “Sugarcane”, “Love Sick”