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Leor Galil: I'm put off by Sleigh Bells. Their last album, Reign of Terror, left me feeling pretty empty, and the opening/title track on the new Bitter Rivals reminds me why I feel that way: the first line is lifted from one of Charles Dickens's best-known books, which makes the entire affair feel vacuous. It's not just that it sounds dumb (seriously, Alexis, you could say anything—anything!), but it's almost as if the entire experience is a bit of an afterthought as long as Sleigh Bells deliver a sound resembling the pump-up bubblegum metal jams they've made their whole (short) career. I like big, dumb party anthems, but not when it's so plainly thoughtless.
Kevin Warwick: Such a thinking man's response. I'm going to just shut my brain off, because Sleigh Bells isn't trying to stump me. I'll agree that Reign of Terror was a bit of a step back from the megabeat, sparkly Treats, which has very little to dissect other than the fact that it's xxxtreme party pop, or "shred pop" (a genre I didn't know existed until Rolling Stone dropped it in describing the duo). Bitter Rivals is back to the same personality as the duo's debut. First, it's loud as hell, with some Atari Teenage Riot-like beats drowning out Alexis in a skull-shaking sort of way. Second, who cares about a second? It's a blast and catchy and, as you said to me the other day, like Mountain Dew for your ears. Cheerleader jock jams supreme.
LG: I like when a band like Sleigh Bells can wallop me over the head with jock jams tremendous enough that it makes me forget I'm essentially listening to jock jams, and part of my issue with Bitter Rivals is it occasionally lacks that power—or, like the title track, there's something slightly out of place that takes me out of the moment. On the xxxtreme carbonated beverage scale Bitter Rivals is a slightly watered down Mountain Dew Code Red—it retains some of the taste that makes it resemble Treats and it has a totally new color as Sleigh Bells mix in elements of house music ("Sing Like a Wire") or sound like nu-metal Aqua ("Young Legends," which is admittedly better than most nu-metal and Aqua), but it's missing its zing. It's a step up from the lukewarm terror of Reign of Terror, but there are enough weak moments that leave me searching for the food nutrition label hoping that what I'm gorging on won't make me feel awful in the morning.
KW: I'll concede your nu-metal acknowledgement, but, really, when you're watching any sort of band play heavy grooves, there are going to be moments when someone in the crowd is like, "Dude, this sounds like Korn" (or maybe that's just every single one of my friends).
And having touched on the subject of their live show, I'll also admit that a hefty fraction of my infatuation with Sleigh Bells is their live show—a bizarro brand of hardcore guitar flailing, hip-hop bouncing, and K-Pop shimmering, all in front of a towering wall of guitar cabinets and no drummer. It's like watching a band in a music video exaggerate every one of its vapid eccentricities for the sake of mugging for the camera. And, let's be honest, Sleigh Bells are always mugging for the camera, both live and on album. Oh, and by the way, I'm currently on "You Don't Get Me Twice," which is about as close to TV on the Radio as Sleigh Bells has ever been and will absolutely ever be.
LG: Man, the stage show is exactly what turned me off of Sleigh Bells. When they played Pitchfork back in 2010 it was such a clusterfuck—which, yes, is extreme, but it matches their extreme presentation. And the presentation was great, but the sound was such a mess I left after two songs and dashed over to the main stage to catch the end of Big Boi's set. That spelled the beginning of the end of my love affair with Sleigh Bells.
Also, is it just me or do the last couple songs on Bitter Rivals sound a little like a charged, punkier version of Wilson Phillips?
KW: Clusterfucks are pretty extreme. And here I thought you liked living the extreme lifestyle. I know you love shred pop, at least. You haven't shut your mouth about it the last week. The tail end of the record, I will agree, is a little lackluster. A little Wilson Phillips, for sure, but if more bands worked at mimicking "Hold On," the world would be a better place. Sleigh Bells are at their best when the beats are blown out and sound like they're clipping your speakers. Will you at least admit that Alexis Krauss is magnetic as hell, cornball lyrics and all?
Also, don't act like you're not a fan of the overused dog-barking noises.
LG: Hey, I'm not saying I dislike the Wilson Phillips aesthetic, it's just a strange, unexpected twist that crops up at the end of the album, and a fairly welcome one at that; it means that Sleigh Bells aren't afraid to break free from their shred-pop formula. It's a hell of a formula, but it tires out fast, and as extreme as they can get, their adherence to the formula is what's held them back since the release of Treats. That adventurousness shows they still have life in them, even if it's not cranked up to 11 or doing a 720 backflip on a half-pipe. And, yes, Alexis Krauss is a magnetic front woman, but when she's shrieking lines from Dickens it makes me want to burn every last copy of A Tale of Two Cities—not because it's fierce but because I think if I destroy the source it'll mean that idiotic line will die with it. She can be such a fiery performer, but when she's throwing out lame filler it is plainly obvious.
KW: Well, I just finished the album and the last line of the final track, "Love Sick," is, brace yourself, "I’m sending gummy bears to the electric chair."
Sleigh Bells aren't afraid to break free of their shred-pop formula, obviously, because Reign of Terror is much more of an airy album that relies on melody and Alexis's vocal aptitude more than her straight up charisma. The first half of Bitter Rivals—I'm actually relistening to the title track/debut single right now—in my opinion, is a reaction to the general wishy-washinessness I heard about Reign of Terror. They go for it, head on, from the very first dog bark. The album is top-loaded and hard as hell (cheesiness and all), and I can't wait to watch it live and not think about a thing.
LG: Honestly, Bitter Rivals is a pleasant surprise, though the shred-pop silliness of Reign of Terror set the bar really, really low. But my reaction to Reign of Terror was so visceral and extreme that parts of Bitter Rivals are empty—unless they're dropping literary references or cozying up to cheesy 80s adult pop, it just kind of exists. That's not very shred-pop. That's not very shred-pop at all. It sounds like shred-pop, and it could do a decent job soundtracking a commercial for Flamin' Hot Cheetos, but every time I press pause on Bitter Rivals, I find myself trying to wipe the fire-red dust off my hands as quickly as possible.
How about you?
KW: You said "shred pop" four times in that little diatribe. Good job, you worked hard at that. My final judgment: yes to the MP3s on my iPod Shuffle while I'm running or pretending to exercise, probably never to a vinyl copy to lounge to in the comfort of my own home. Obviously, I know it's candy and absurd—you think guitarist-songwriter Derek Miller (ex-Poison the Well, never forget) would ever take off his heavy-denim jean jacket in 100-degree heat at an outdoor festival like Pitchfork . . . not gonna happen—but I think they play up to that angle in a smart way. They're too cool, and they know you think they think they're too cool, and there you are anyway, bobbing your head along the entire way.