February 21, 2012

Test Spins: Sleigh Bells

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With her pin-straight dark brown hair, tattooed arms and usual preference for black leather or rugged denim jackets, Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss seems qualified to be the lead singer of an indie rock band. But a former elementary school teacher? Yeah, right.

Clearly, Krauss is unlike most leading women in the alternative rock industry. She’s the combination of every possible high school stereotype: the punk, the perky cheerleader, the bully and the crush.  Girl or guy, you certainly don’t want to mess with her, but you don’t want to run away from her either.

And one thing is for certain: both Krauss and producer / guitarist / co-songwriter of the band, Derek Miller enjoy making noise — lots of it.  With their 2010 debut Treats, they offered 32 minutes of screams, moans, yelling, electric guitar and lots and lots of bass.  Sleigh Bells’ sophomore album Reign of Terror does not disappoint in the noise department, but this album is much darker.  Just a comparison of the two albums’ cover art says it all: Treats featured a hazy photograph of a group of cheerleaders in uniform in front of a bright blue cloudy sky, while Reign of Terror simply features a pair of blood-stained white sneakers.

Despite this edgier, more rock-and-roll approach to the second album, the songs tend to be more anticlimactic and droning and with very few hooks, something for which the band’s previous songs were lauded.

Channeling this darker theme, the tracks “Born to Lose” and “Demons,” both sadistic even in title, combine Sleigh Bells’ traditional love of noise and an appreciation for rock.  Both songs embody a harsher intensity, but the constant clamor is exciting and slightly riles the listener up.  “Born to Lose” features the singing of a raspier and less feminine Krauss over a steady, pulsing beat and heavy bass.  “Demons,” on the other hand, particularly emphasizes the electric guitar and Krauss’ singing is less hazy and closer to yelling, but this evened out with the faint sound of her softer singing voice simultaneously playing in the background.

One particular highlight of Reign of Terror is the improved production and clearer sound.  “You Lost Me” demonstrates this refined vocal and audio quality, and though it is not one of the louder and more memorable songs, it is still pleasant in its composure.  Krauss’ voice is light and girly as she recalls memories from her past and youth rebelliousness: “teenage metal heads in your denim vests / ’cause you’re holding hands through your favorite bands.”  On “Never Say Die,” Krauss seems rough but confident with her whispered, sultry singing.  The lack of a heavy bass allows the focus to turn to the technological production and the editing of her voice with its echoing effects.

“Crush” is similar to a track that would be found on Treats, with its jollier pep-rally sounding audio frenzy.  Even the lyrics are lighter and more pop-influenced, as exemplified when she playfully describes a crush in a manner resembling high school lust.  “Comeback Kid,” the album’s first official single, applies a similar youthful approach; it is fast-paced and the lyrics are lighter and more innocently juvenile: “you’re the comeback kid / you’ll go away but you’ll come back someday.”

However, Krauss’ voice seems especially weary in some of the songs; it lacks the energy of her more youthful sound on Treats.  On mellower songs like “Road to Hell” and “End of the Line,” Krauss bears a whispering and soft-spoken tone in combination with a steady unchanging beat, generating an exhaustive overall sound.  While some artists can get away with such slower tracks, Sleigh Bells is so characterized by its booming intensity and mix of screaming, yelling and eccentric sounds that these songs simply fail to reach the same level of dynamism.

With Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells proves that it should stick to its comfort zone: noise.  Though the audio in this album is better produced and smoother on the ears, there is not as much exhilaration and non-stop energy as on their previous effort.  There is certainly more variety among the tracks on this more experimental album, but this also results in several tracks that focus too much on creating a dark image and not on providing listeners with sufficient entertainment.

Fortunately, even as they test out new domains and take a more refined, less spontaneous approach with this album, Sleigh Bells does not sacrifice any of its signature fierceness or sass, and Krauss, more importantly, lives up to her intriguing paradoxical rock star image.

Original Author: Dina Khatib