It’s been about 20 months since we last heard from Sleigh Bells, when their second album Reign of Terror was released to a tepid reception. The mixed reaction for that record was understandable (It ranked both #58 on PopMatters’ Best Albums of 2012 and #3 on PopMatters’ Most Disappointing Albums of 2012). It’s hard to follow an album that essentially creates a new genre, or at least subgenre, of music. You either repeat the things that worked the first time around and disappoint people by not sounding as fresh, or you change things up and disappoint people by not providing the exact same thrills. On top of that, Reign of Terror itself dropped a mere 20 months after Sleigh Bells’ debut Treats, which probably wasn’t long enough for the buzz to die down on that first album and expectations to mount for a second.
So now the band is giving us Bitter Rivals, which sounds in many ways like a second attempt at a second record rather than a proper third album. Reign of Terror took the band in a particular direction from Treats, putting more emphasis on the duo’s pop hooks on some songs while retaining their signature full-on wall of guitars and sparse hip-hop beats on others. Bitter Rivals doesn’t really follow further in that direction. Instead it sounds like Sleigh Bells went back to Treats and headed off down a different road.
That doesn’t mean that Bitter Rivals is all that much of a departure for the duo. Their songs are still characterized by sparse hip-hop beats, Derek Miller’s walls of guitars, and Alexis Krauss’ feathery pop vocals. Songs like “Sugarcane” and “To Hell With You” could slide in easily on either of the band’s earlier albums. But there are recognizable differences, and they start with “Bitter Rivals”, the album’s first track and first single. The song opens with finger snaps and clean, almost jangly guitar before the guitar crunch kicks in and Krauss starts rapping “It was the best of times / It was the worst of times / I had to kill the new sheriff in town / She was gonna try to keep me / To go, go down / Go, go down.” Musically, the guitars are counterpointed by synth brass, which adds a whole new level of noise to the band’s already-huge sound. In an interesting shift, though, Miller allows everything but the drumbeat to drop out during the song’s chorus, so the listener’s full focus can be on Krauss when she starts singing.
These incremental sonic differences pop up repeatedly throughout the album. “Minnie” also features rapped verses and a sparsely accompanied refrain, as Krauss sings catchily “Minnie Minnie / Go count your pennies / I’m sorry to say / You don’t have many.” The almost-funky, very danceable “Young Legends” prominently features a piano line. Meanwhile, “Sing Like a Wire” sounds like it was written immediately after Miller discovered that his synthesizers could do more than just stand in for a live drummer. It’s filled with overwhelmingly loud ’80s-style synth orchestra hits, synth handclaps, and other sounds straight from 1985. It’s ridiculous, but like most of Sleigh Bells’ most ridiculous tracks it works because of Miller and Krauss’ absolute conviction. It helps that they still have an ear for catchy hooks, too.
While Sleigh Bells’ melodies are still generally strong, Krauss’ lyrics remain hit and miss at best. “You Don’t Get Me Twice” is like a collection of non-sequiturs around a central chorus admonishing a guy that she isn’t going to sleep with him again. What at first seems like a chance to make a statement about overbearing men is diffused by contextless lines like “It’s a terrifying thing the American Dream” and “It started storming / So early in the morning…Oh, right / The weather’s boring.” And finally in the end the sentiment is completely defused by Krauss deciding “Maybe if you ask me nice.”
Still, Bitter Rivals ends up being a much smoother listen than Reign of Terror. The previous album clocked in at a relatively brief 11 songs and 36 minutes, but it felt way longer than their debut’s 32 minutes. This record runs through 10 tracks in just under 30 minutes and it feels light and breezy. Maybe that’s a function of the band’s sound. Maybe there’s a limit to how much the average listener can take Sleigh Bells’ particular combination of pop hooks, overamped guitars, and thumping beats before it becomes tiresome, and that limit is somewhere around 33 minutes. Or maybe these 10 songs are simply better overall than the ones on Reign of Terror.
Either way, Bitter Rivals probably isn’t going to top Treats on anyone’s list of favorite Sleigh Bells albums, but it at least shows that Miller and Krauss are interested in branching out sonically. A good example of this is Bitter Rivals closer and possible best song, “Love Sick.” Both members have been known to talk about Sleigh Bells’ penchant for R&B melodies, but it’s often hard to discern when the rest of the music is so far removed from typical R&B. Here the band finally finds a way to make the R&B stick. The opening 30 seconds are catchy enough, with a typical crunchy guitar backing and aggressive singing from Krauss. But at the 30-second mark the song sheds nearly all of that in favor of a smooth, shimmering melody where Krauss sings over an open, clean-sounding guitar accompaniment. The second hard-hitting verse sounds a lot better as a break to the R&B-flavored chorus than as just another Sleigh Bells rocker. The band even manages to come up with a minute-long outro to the song that’s probably the quietest thing they’ve ever done. Krauss croons softly over genuinely delicate guitars, and the only percussion is the soft ringing of actual sleigh bells. And then it ends with the weird but catchy line “I’m sending gummi bears / To the electric chair.” “Love Sick” on its own makes a better case for Sleigh Bells showing long-term musical growth than all of the album’s goofy-but-fun synth brass lines combined.