The Neglected Canon #5
by Billy Brooks
Treats – Sleigh Bells
Sleigh Bells formed when singer Alexis Krauss’s mum embarrassed her at a dinner out by gushing over her singing voice to their waiter, Derek Miller. When he suggested they form a band on the spot, Alexis was weirdly up for it when many would have been sceptical. No matter, though; any partnership that can sneak revolutionary noise pop into peoples’ living rooms is fine by me. Although noise pop is the label most often attached to Sleigh Bells, they don’t quite fit neatly into that category, or any other, come to think of it. Derek’s heavy metal influences and keenness for crunched drum machines and gritty feedback combines with Alexis’s saccharine voice and more obviously pop sensibilities to create something quite unlike the more shoegaze noise pop bands, such as The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Sleigh Bells’ debut Treats was almost a big deal when it was released in 2010. The lead single Infinity Guitars was used on a phone advert at the time, so it was at least recognisable, if not popular, for a good few months. That song is one of the album’s highlights, featuring a riff so crunchy and badass that no listener need trouble themselves with the totally meaningless lyric that accompanies it. If the charts these days can tell us anything, it’s that the plain meanings of words are no longer important for a song to be deemed a success, and haven’t been for a while. The song’s main hook is probably the slightly unnatural sounding minor triad of notes sung by Krauss, which dovetails beautifully with the guitar riff at what I suppose the modern listener might reasonably call the ‘drop’. This section not only impresses with its capable developments of melodic and rhythmic ideas but also through Derek’s ability to call and raise the earlier sections on their already ear-bending chainsaw fuzz sounds. His distortion pedal sounds like it’s constantly on its last legs after a run in with a vicious bear.
The album begins with Tell ‘Em, and Kids, which are also album highlights. Were I forced to admit an impediment to the quality of this LP, it would ostensibly be the repetitiveness of the song structures. However, perhaps only two of the album’s eleven songs could reasonably be expected to conform to ideas of common pop song structure, while the other nine are essentially experiments in noise, which, though split into sections, are not beasts to be tamed and divided neatly. What’s more, at half an hour long, the album is never repetitive for long enough to be boring. Tell ‘Em features another comparatively meaningless lyric, offset by the band’s signature call and response style as the track flits between tuneless crunch guitar percussive noises, Krauss’s cherubic crooning, and some May-esque guitarmonies for good measure. Kids is equally tribal, featuring about three separate notes in the entire song. Over a positively invasive drum machine, synth, and whammy guitar combo, Krauss sings a lovely ditty about a visit to the beach with friends. Cute! The centrepiece of the song is the inclusion of a group of teenage girls, who opine:
“Did I ever need a vacation?
Just needed to get away for a while
- Shrill scream -
Wait, did I forget my sunglasses?
Nope – got ‘em!”
The use of a high-pitched scream as a percussive fill enjoys a marvellous recrudescence in penultimate number A/B Machines (yet another meaningless lyric – don’t say I got your hopes up in this department).
This album is all about discord. Krauss’s vocals just shouldn’t fit over Derek’s arrangements, but they do so beautifully. From section to section, the Pixies loud/soft dynamic shift technique is exploited to as great an extent as it could ever reasonably be. This leads not only to abrasive walls of noise, but also to unexpected moments of exquisite and disarming beauty, as in the album closer and title track, a hard rock slow waltz about – you guessed it – nothing in particular, but which features a solo xylophone a few bars from the end.
The quietest moments on the record are a welcome break from the unrelenting vim and vitriol of the surrounding screams and squalls of mechanical noise. I used to think slow song #1 Rachel was a love song – “Rachel please, don’t play games with me”– but now that I actually feel like I have to get these lyrics right, I honestly can’t tell if it isn’t “Rachel please, don’t go to the beach”, which is a slightly strange opening gambit for a torturous ballad about longing. I’m much more certain about the lyrics on Rill Rill, a darling, bouncy song about feeling nervous around people you admire, featuring such lyrical gems (finally) as:
“Keep thinking ‘bout every straight face
Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces
What about them?
I’m all about them!
Six such straight As,
And cut ‘em in the bathroom”
It’s no wonder that this instrumental is so much tamer than the rest of the album’s; it’s actually a sample from Can You Get to That? by Funkadelic.
Despite its pop strength and commercial potential as a rock ‘n’ roll alternative to club dance music, Sleigh Bells have never experienced the success they deserve. Treats, the truly standout LP of their discography, earns its rightful place in my neglected canon. As usual, don’t be afraid to examine their other work. Except for lead single It’s Just Us Now from their most recent LP Jessica Rabbit. Be very afraid of that one.