Key Tracks: “Bitter Rivals,” “Minnie”
What’s a band to do when they can’t shock listeners anymore? They do the opposite – they give us what we don’t expect. This is what Sleigh Bells have struggling with since the release of their perfect 2010 debut, “Treats.” “Treats” has proved itself as the loudest and most abrasive alternative album of the century, mixing hip-hop beats and pop vocals over the crunching, amp-destroying guitar. But the band’s follow-up, 2012′s “Reign of Terror” attempted to even volume with songwriting, resulting in an abysmally boring album that failed at both. “Bitter Rivals” isn’t great, but the band expands their sound in a promising way.
The title track starts the album. Alexis Krauss’s exuberant “Hi!” gets followed by snapping and an acoustic 12 bar blues rhythm, which feels intentionally deceiving to new listeners. When the lyrics – “It was the best of times / It was the worst of times / I had to kill the new sheriff in town” finally kick in, they bring that debut album intensity with them. It’s very reminiscent of “Treats” – ear-shatteringly loud but so catchy that it’ll get in your head permanently. The song does feel a little more influenced, though, and that picks up as the album goes on. Follow-up tracks “Sugarcane,” “Minnie” and “Sing Like a Wire” are loud but varied, as the band has finally figured the keys to writing actual tracks that exist beyond volume.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay as bombastic, as the songs get less memorable. Their embracing of other instruments and continued use of acoustic is great, but once the balance of songwriting and volume starts to tip in the favor of the former, the album loses steam. Some, like “Tiger Kit,” manage to work just based on principle, but others like “You Don’t Get Me Twice” are largely unoriginal. Also, Sleigh Bells aren’t known for long works – all three albums have a total 31 songs – but this album’s 29 minute length just doesn’t feel like enough.
It is definitely a step forward. The band welcomes everything that it’s debut seems to have turned away, because they know they need to stay fresh. “To Hell With You” is even kind of a slow song, and while it isn’t great, it’s a lot different. The songs have depth and less predictability than before. “Treats” is still far and away their best album, but “Bitter Rivals” is certainly an improvement over their sophomore album, and represents steps in the right direction.
-By Andrew McNally