Bitter and Sweet
The album begins with one of the most famous opening lines in history: “It was the best of times / It was the worst of times.” With that opener and the title Bitter Rivals, one might think Sleigh Bell’s new album is a discussion of the rivalry between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton in the classic A Tale of Two Cities. It’s not. The Dickens allusions drop off sharply after that first track, and somewhere along the way things turn silly as Bitter Rivals closes with the sad, nonsensical “I’m sending gummy bears to the electric chair.”
Singer Alexis Krauss and musician Derek Miller are five years and three albums into their partnership as Sleigh Bells and their work has remained consistently fierce. On Bitter Rivals, they come on full attack and don’t let up until the final third of the album, and even then, barely. They have only one speed, and maintaining that level of intensity means every song can be run through in three minutes or less. The title track comes out swinging with an earwormy electro-stomp. “Young Legends” offers a sunny bounce with which Katy Perry might have fun, and the ironic “To Hell With You” slows the assault with Sleigh Bells’ version of an ’80s mall ballad.
Most songs run together and even after several listens, it might be hard to distinguish one from another if not for a particular lyric or vocal shift that catches your ear. These can be few, as Krauss is often drowned out in the assault surrounding her. There is one line where Krauss sings out and the full power of her voice is briefly heard. On “You Don’t Get Me Twice,” she stops shouting and puts away the kewpie voice (her two modes) and sings “It’s a terrifying thing / the American dream.” For that brief moment, it’s clear what she can offer, and hopefully on future albums, she’ll have the opportunity to express her vocal range, and be a bit higher in the mix.
Sleigh Bells make a kind of aggro electronic pop for gentler souls. The beats stomp and swagger, the guitars shred, but any real violence is undercut by the precise neatness of it all. Singer Alexis Krauss’ petulant shout and put-on kewpie voice doesn’t exactly toughen things up. Listening to Sleigh Bells is like watching a toddler get mad: the anger may be real to them, but those saucer eyes and chubby cheeks just make it too adorable to take seriously.