I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll skip around for all of March…
(Mom & Pop Records, 2010)
Where do Sleigh Bells get off? Seriously, I mean it – who do they think they are that they can sling a record like Treats at me and get away with it? I admit, I’m an openminded guy – you should realize that if you’ve been reading my column. But there were a few false starts with this record for me. I think I was more surprised by and confounded with my own responses to the music, which ranged from a greater sense of joy than I anticipated to a repulsion of what this record reminded me, plus all manner of sensations in between. It was an emotional roller coaster. I felt pregnant.
(And if my pregnant wife can get past that joke, so can you.)
Here’s the thing with that – you’re going to read this column, internalize what I describe, scratch your head with confusion, and probably never listen to Sleigh Bells in your life. And that’s just wrong. Because, even though I’m sure to turn you off to this band, I have to admit: it’s really good. Without spilling too many beans, Treats is assembled and produced so well, it doesn’t matter what awful music style or series of compilations pops into your head – it’ll be gone soon enough.
So guys, wanna know the secret to my shame? It’s Jock Jams. Sleigh Bells sounds like a gussied up, coherent set of Jock Jams. I know, you’re as incredulous as me, I get it. Sit back down. Yes, the reason you see that cheerleader semi-pyramid on the cover is that you can imagine hearing most of this album blared through high-school gymnasium speakers. Save for a few tracks, the drums were recorded (or sampled) to sound like a hundred people stomping their feet along to a cheer routine. Cockroaches beware. Were you expecting ironic kazoo? Well forget it, there are no “Rock and Roll, Part 2”-isms to be found; instead, synths and guitars are distorted to the unreasonable levels of a chorus of table saws. We could feed Gary Glitter to them if we wanted to. We probably should.
With all the buzzsaw guitars and thudding percussion, you might be tempted to peg this as an industrial album. But hold on – you don’t have the whole story. See, Sleigh Bells’ singer, Alexis Krauss, coos in a sweetly innocent voice over the din – although to be fair, she’s not afraid to scream at you. Does it take the edge off? Sure, a bit – the sugar offsets the racket, veering the whole production close to pop radio territory. But Krauss isn’t your average fame-whore, instead coming off like a disgruntled Manga schoolgirl – I could easily see her in her school uniform freaking out superpower-style and laying waste to the boys who won’t talk to her and the girls who are too petty to dis her to her face. There are two points on the album – “Kids” and “A/B Machines” – where she screams at the absolute top of her lungs. It’s juvenile, jarring, and eminently effective. In fact, if Bis’s Manda Rin (remember them?) and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen laced their crack with Smarties, smoked it, and made a record, Treats wouldn’t be a far cry from the result.
So what you get is one hypersugar rush of high school melodrama fit for whatever teen trend, vampire-based or otherwise, graces the screens of the CW audience. (Is the CW even a channel anymore? I can’t be bothered to check.) The first four tracks hit you in the head like a sledgehammer – “Tell ’Em” does the power tool tone trick, “Riot Rhythm” turns an indie rock duo into a marching band, and “Infinity Guitars,” while tricking us with one guitar until the end, literally piles loads of parallel tracks as it explodes to its close, and while it’s not infinity, it certainly sounds like at least, say, eight. There’s a cool-down period in the middle of the album, highlighted by “Rill Rill,” which is perfect teenager catnip. “I wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces?” asks Krauss, and it’s possibly the deepest question on the album. (Seriously, are you listening, CW? Sign these kids up!)
Treats awesomely and violently explodes to a close, with “Crown on the Ground” mimicking the stomp/power drill tone tricks of earlier tracks. “Straight A’s” is a minute of white-hot punk recorded so far in the red that it’s almost impossible to make out the instruments. I may be naïve about “A/B Machines,” with its single lyric of “Got my A machines on the table, got my B machines in the drawer,” but all I can think about is Krauss as mad scientist working on mechanical fist-sized spiders in a basement lab. The backups, “B machines,” are in the drawer. Of course.
I’ve gotten through this entire review without mentioning bandmate/songwriter/producer Derek Miller, once of hardcore water-supply-tamperers Poison the Well, whose production work here is remarkable. That he can make guitar strums sound like pressing the on/off switch of a miter saw is pretty cool, and his foresight and ability to incorporate so many weird and disparate styles into his palette is sheer genius. If you’ve gotten this far – and who am I kidding, I know you have – trust me, you can set aside any trepidation at my language and grab this album as soon as you can. It’s going to be alright, I promise.
RIYL: Bis, M.I.A., Ministry