Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals

Bitter Rivals sounds in many ways like a second attempt at a second record rather than a proper third album. This may be a good thing.

Sleigh Bells

Bitter Rivals

Label: Mom & Pop
US Release Date: 2013-10-08
UK Release Date: 2013-10-07

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.