Forget the hype and set aside your suspicions that Sleigh Bells might only be the blogosphere’s flavor-of-the-month — none of that will matter once the sensory overload of Treats kicks in anyway. And that onslaught of noise pretty much begins from the very first instant. You’ll probably be too shellshocked by the anxiety-inducing and heart-palpitating thrills of the leadoff track “Tell ‘Em” to do anything else but take it all in, even if your eardrums tell you to turn off the racket. After some piledriving beats and a towering riff trigger the start of “Tell ‘Em”, hyperactive drum machine rhythms and frenetic synths push their way to the front of the dense, crowded mix, disorienting anyone who expects a sense of space and depth in a song. You figure out pretty fast that Sleigh Bells ain’t music to just have on in the background.
Love it or leave it, even the biggest skeptic has to admit that multi-instrumentalist Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss have created a musical experience all their own. Maybe it’s the scenester infatuation with Sleigh Bells that has gotten antennas up for the release of Treats, but it’s the band’s brash aesthetic that’s going to hold all the attention that it has generated. So while part of Sleigh Bells’ appeal has to do with its bold inventiveness, a lot more of it has to be chalked up to the air of invincibility that comes through in the duo’s bruising, high-impact sound, which elicits a visceral reaction that gets you to really feel its excesses and indulge in them.
When you see the hipsters and geeks strutting as if they’re prizefighters this summer, you’ll have a good idea of what’s probably playing on their iPods. Indie takes on intro music for a heavyweight bout, “Riot Rhythm” and “Crown on the Ground” are dance-punk juggernauts, brimming over with pounding beats that are cut across by piercing guitars and slicing sound effects. In particular, “Crown on the Ground” walks out to a fevered pitch with guitars blazing from the start, yet somehow keeps building up the intensity, with layer upon layer of blaring keyboards, fuzzed-out rhythms, and anthemic vocals. That M.I.A. is Sleigh Bells’ biggest booster — and investor, since her N.E.E.T. label is co-releasing Treats — makes a lot of sense when you hear the boisterous swagger of “Kids” and “A / B Machines”, though you might wonder who’s teaching whom a few new tricks if you consider the latest tracks leaked from the upcoming album ///Y/. Whichever way the influence is working, Krauss’ scattershot speak-singing and the hypercharged melodies of both songs have a similar feel to M.I.A.’s playfully aggressive sound, just if the latter had its worldly eclecticism shorn down to its most brutally infectious elements.
Yet, in the midst of the gale-force dynamics, there’s still an intuitive and irrepressible catchiness to Treats. Like on the ear-ringing “Rill Rill”, which seems a lot like a theme song for the dog days of summer, with its soundscape weighty and humid enough to make asphalt go wavy while the creamsicle vocals try to cool things off. Teenage symphonies don’t usually come as alluringly sinister and imposing as “Rill Rill”, especially when Krauss breathily sings, “Have a heart / Sixteen / Six Six Six”, as chiming, buzzing keyboards rise behind her voice. Indeed, a lot of Sleigh Bells’ appeal comes from the kinds of double-edged emotions and moods the music evokes, at once heavy and sweet, gritty and pretty. Case in point, “Rachel” has its shoegazer DNA cross-pollinated with electro-pop, as thin, gauzy atmospherics are brought down and dirtied up by scuzzy dance synths and bottomed-out beats.
Even though there are a few tracks where Sleigh Bells try to get away with bluster and decibels alone, it’s amazing how much of Treats backs up the talk and the walk. Who knows if Sleigh Bells’ thrills will have the staying power to be anything more than a summertime fling? But when the feelings that Treats stirs up are this strong, you might as well enjoy them as long as they last.