Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Sleigh Bells – Tell ‘Em

The Jukebox adds its voice to the conversation. Several voices, in fact…


Anthony Easton: The fight about this band will be like Animal Collective, with loves, and haters, and those people who are indifferent lost among the vitirol.

Katherine St Asaph: Sleigh Bells are two people: a guy from some hardcore band and Alexis Krauss from the teenpop group Ruby Blue, which was advertised in a few teen mags as an alternative-ish group that played its own instruments, had a movie soundtrack song or two, then fell off the face of the earth. They’re barely even Googleable now thanks to (not that I begrudge her) Roisin Murphy. Luckily, this is a more-than-decent replacement. “Tell ‘Em” drops Alexis’s rapid-fire pitter patter vocals and big-sister lyrics into what sounds like cherry bombs going off at a football game. It’s the kind of cheerleader anthem real cheerleaders should really take up, and I wouldn’t mind if it became the template for a hundred more songs.

Martin Skidmore: This is my first exposure to the much-hyped American duo. I like the music, its complex aggression and attack. Singer Alexis seems rather overwhelmed by that, her thin voice nowhere near matching the power of the rest of the sound. It does strike me as a potent and original backing track which needs something better than a weedy indie singer to front it, to create a better balance, but I do like the sound.

Alex Macpherson: Who the hell decided that this band should be this year’s “Important” Hyped Act? This is repulsive music, kind of like four-month-old leftovers that are starting to smell alarming, inexpertly puréed and served lumpy. There is nothing worthwhile about any aesthetic that values this kind of incompetence; it demeans us all as humans.

Jonathan Bogart: It’s really very simple. I like small, girlish voices. I like the sensation of being physically assaulted by music. I like big, jacking beats. And more than any of this, I like incongruity. It’s a simple pleasure, perhaps, but a very basic one. Every time I listen I’m still surprised.

David Moore: I’m just…not getting it. Not geeking out on the noise, such as it is, not digging Alexis Krauss’s relative politeness (kind of representative — TOO POLITE). So why do I care about this band? My wife thinks I’m just being contrarian, overcompensating for the fact that I don’t feel strongly one way or the other but still want to be part of the conversation and have therefore inflated my sense of dislike accordingly. When I played this for her, she said it was OK and then we changed it to something else. So I guess that’s the line I’ll stick with and (politely?) bite my tongue if it comes up again.

Alfred Soto: The star is the rattling percussion, not the guitars. I expected Kelly Clarkson or Avril Lavigne to emerge from the racket, and a shame they didn’t — this would benefit from a vocalist who can split the difference between assertive and pushy. Indie voices find it difficult (where’s Karen O?).

Chuck Eddy: It zips, zaps, zooms, and finds a decent tune amid the chaos, which is impressive. But it still seems stuck to one spot on the floor somehow — the clankbeats never quite find a groove that moves. And if the singing does, it still lays back when I wish it was pushing into the forefront. Reminds me of what I liked, and what I didn’t, about the Breeders’ “Cannonball.” Except they did it better. And M.I.A. does it warmer.

Kat Stevens: My immediate thoughts upon hearing this: “OMG Lolita Storm are back!Back!BACK! I wonder why they’ve roped in a couple of American cheerleaders to do the vocals for them?” Later, once I’d calmed down a bit, it was clear that the rest of the album was far more like the Breeders skipping in the playground than any output from Digital Hardcore (except “Straight A’s” which could totally have been a bonus track on Red Hot Riding Hood). But before such reasonable thoughts could get a word in edgeways I had to deal with the rousing CRUNCH NOISE RAAAAR THUMP CRACK that was telling me to 1) flee for the hills and await the four horsepersons 2) shave my head and join a radical commune devoted to earplug awareness 3) round up my old elastics schoolchums and teach them a new jumping rhyme 4) find a clip on Youtube of that bit near the end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey where they finally learn to play the guitar properly and it half sounds like they’re going to do Hendrix’s “Stars And Stripes” but it ends up being a Kiss track. It didn’t matter what I did really, as long as I did something – because now I had got off my backside and I had punched the air and I would and could and must do ANYTHING.

17 Responses to “Sleigh Bells – Tell ‘Em”

  1. To pick up on Anthony’s comparison, what aggravates me about this — AND Animal Collective (and Fennesz before that) — is that the interplay of noise and prettiness is so manicured and mannerist; the two are put together in the same space but they don’t connect with one another, let alone swap roles or clothes or ideas. Also sticks too tidily inside a schoolroom conception of harmony. Also such a too-mousy singer. :(

    the iranians do it better

  2. This kind of sounds like the intro to a Lolita Storm track. An actual Lolita Storm track would have thirty seconds of this before the real song kicks in, twice as fast and twice as shouty, that is, four times as good.

  3. It just occurred to me: Did they come up with the title once they realized that their band name shared initials with Soulja Boy?

  4. me above^^= maybe a bit unfair to Fennesz there (or imprecise anyway) but they are some in the same zone of my disaffections, if not quite so deep.

    4 for Sleigh Bells I think

  5. I really like how the girl’s vocals are always double tracked – she knows that her voice is thin and whispery so let’s make it a THING: three whispery voices >>> one strong but boring voice

  6. I don’t know whether this will help or make things worse, but I’m pretty sure she’s singing that way on purpose. (i.e. she didn’t always sound like that.)

  7. Her voice is actually the least offensive thing about this…I just have no time for the “this shit sounds like a bunch of five-year-olds in a music lesson” aesthetic, or any such self-infantilisation.

  8. I really like this by the way. Sounds like David Lee Roth should kick in and then it’s Dirty Projectors instead but it works.

  9. The thing that knocked me off the fence and squarely into “SLEIGH BELLS ARE THE BEST OMG” territory was realizing (partial credit to Mike Barthel) that this album is basically a treatise on 14-year-old girls (and I would say a particular, privileged kind of 14-year-old girl). The lead singer is also a teacher in New York City. The songs have titles like “Kids” and “Straight A’s,” the lyrics are about grades and braces and boyfriends and playing games and calling your friends and fighting with your friends and talking about how powerful you are and Kool Aid.

    And, yeah, this album sounds basically like being fourteen! While also being female and white and upper middle class and from the East Coast / New York Metropolitan Area! But then, it also sounds like being in your late twenties and looking at white female upper middle class New York teenagers and hating the fuck out of their careless, thoughtless, worshipped and way-more-confident-than-you asses.

    Alexis’s laid-back, girlish singing is doing basically the same work as the little girl shrieking bloody murder in the middle of waxing adult about how she needs a vacation and casually wondering where her sunglasses are on “Kids” — she may sound cool and confident and polite, she may be chatting about trips to the beach and good-girl things like getting straight-A’s, but there is a whole secret stomping tornado going on. All around her words there is rage, there is ripping shit apart, there is imagining getting out her laserguns like in a videogame and shooting your goddamn face off, or at least taking out her cell phone and texting her best friends about what a little shit you are. (I don’t think the layered vocals are just an acknowledgment of how thin and soft her voice is — the kids on “Kids” are layered too, half the album’s lyrics are first-person plural. It’s the feral pack groupthink of adolescence.) And the whole album, the singsong-y schoolyard chant melodies and the danceable rhythms and Alexis’s singing, it’s saying, you know, take her seriously, this rage is real for her, but don’t take her too seriously, because really, what has this kid got to be angry about? What does this kid need a vacation from? Laugh at her a little bit. Disregard her a little bit. Just so she doesn’t get too big for her britches.

    This album basically sounds like the first day of summer, every summer between eighth and eleventh grade. Not what I was listening to at the beginning of every summer between eighth and eleventh grade, but how the beginning of every summer between eighth and eleventh grade felt. And, like, I believe you all know how much I love music that takes me back to middle school.

  10. Since lex brought up incompetence, essay question for the haterz:

    What do you think Sleigh Bells is attempting to achieve that they’re failing at?

    (“Making good music” is not a valid answer. Be more specific.)

  11. I don’t really agree with lex’s point, but he has crystallised the thing in this that is niggling me: the element here that’s “rock noise like a 14-yr-old boy would make” reminds me of the kinds of adverts you see on the underground, where a professional artist has been asked to draw as if he were four. It’s meant to be a kid’s drawing, but you can tell it’s it’s by a grown-up — a grown-up too good to draw LIKE an infant (and not good enough to turn himself/herself back into an infant that’s drawing).

    I *really* like the story Erika is telling about it — but I still think if you start with the music itself, how its conctituent parts are conceived, and move with them towards the concept, there’s something too mannered and pre-planned about the result. It’s written music rather than played music, if that makes sense.

    (Of course this is the only bit of the LP I’ve heard; maybe it goes elsewhere in other bits, but that just means this bit isn’t enough on its own…)

  12. I pretty much agree with Erika here 100%. It’s not just the obvious referents — the beginning sounding like those Jock Jams that play before the high school football team lumbers in, the fact that basically everything here sounds like it used to have a “Ready? OKAY!” before it. It’s the speaker. “All the kids these days — do you really want to be that way?” only makes sense if you’re telling someone who’s about 12. Except that what you actually hear when you’re 12 sounds nothing like that usually, so hearing this makes me want to go out and swipe that roll-on body glitter across my arms and go live the middle/high school movie that doesn’t actually happen.

    Only gave it a [9] because I had to save at least one point for the title track, a [10] for sure.

  13. I *really* like the story Erika is telling about it — but I still think if you start with the music itself, how its conctituent parts are conceived, and move with them towards the concept, there’s something too mannered and pre-planned about the result. It’s written music rather than played music, if that makes sense.

    I just don’t see the problem with music being “mannered and pre-planned,” as long as it’s effectively mannered and pre-planned. I mean, most of the mannered/polite/etc. arguments above seem to take issue with the fact that the vocals are a lot less forceful than the music, which, if it’s just a case of vocals being less forceful than the music and not accomplishing (or even trying to accomplish) anything with that lack of forcefulness — that’s cool, I can see why you would complain. But, like, how is “they came up with a concept and then executed that concept so successfully that I can actually write you a few hundred words telling you what that concept is” a flaw? Because as far as I’m concerned, that’s not a flaw, that’s a job well done — and more music (more everything, really) should aspire to it.

    So basically, I see yer “incompetent” and I raise you a “no it ain’t,” Lex. (And I really would like to see people on the incompetence side of the argument answer Jonathan’s question!)

  14. Also, good call on the Jock Jams thing, Katherine. And I can’t believe I forgot this — the cover of the album is a picture of a cheer squad with their fucking faces scratched out, isn’t it?

  15. I almost got into a whole thing about how what I tend to like about teenpop is NOT the kinds of experiences that directly in a very (maybe weirdly) on-the-nose way evoke things like straight A’s and braces. But that’s not really true, and it’s evading the issue that (1) I don’t hear that at ALL in the music because I’m so preoccupied with its alternating primness and sloppiness in the production/arrangements, and (2) even if I did hear that it still isn’t what actually bugs me about the band. It would be a far more interesting conversation to have, but I don’t think this band is worth my investment in that conversation. Which admittedly seems to upset me. (Which I guess is to say I’m most in line with Anthony here. I mean, Panda Bear/Animal Collective sings about transitioning between post-adolescence and adulthood in “My Girls,” a subject that interests me, but similarly to Sleigh Bells: (1) I can’t understand the lyrics so whatever and (2) what he actually says, according to the lyrics sheet, is fucking stupid anyway — so why would I use that song to talk about that issue?).

  16. Sounds like an intro – I keep waiting for the song to kick in, for a release, propulsion, progression that never comes. So it’s like fanfares and fusillades, but nothing ever rolls out of the trenches.

    It’s a strong intro. Lex is simply wrong when he calls this incompetent. The quick triple drum, the answering laser shots, the guitar launching out of that, are all precisely timed, as are all the dissonances, which are used to both exploit and disrupt harmonic overtones. Whatever one thinks of the decision to play beyond the equipment’s capacity – a decision that’s been a rock ‘n’ roll staple since Ike Turner decided in 1951 to go ahead and play through his ripped speakers on “Rocket 88” – it’s not incompetence.

    That said, the complaints here other than Lex’s can be summed up by saying, “It doesn’t rock,” and I agree. I’m sure the juxtaposition between the instrumental clamor and the dreamy schoolgirl-doing-her-circular-throat-exercise singing is intentional, but the result of that circularity is that the vocals aren’t leading anywhere, there isn’t a musical narrative to draw me in; and since Miller and Krauss choose not to give this a pulse, it doesn’t move. Maybe they thought the ricochets and the power chord were sufficient, but they were wrong.

    A bass or some equivalent (tuba, thumb on lower guitar strings, low notes on the keys) gives you a sonorous throb, is probably the most important instrument in rock ‘n’ roll and r&b. That and voice. Krauss played bass in RubyBlue. Don’t know why she eschews it here.

    I’ll bet the Soulja Boy reference that Jaymc noticed is deliberate. I’m sure these guys study Collipark and Swizz Beatz etc. As Perpetua said in Pitchfork, “Crown on the Ground” lifts its riff from “Party Up.” I can see how Sleigh Bells are working towards the underload/overload that a Collipark and a Beatz achieve. The band are a work in progress. I’m only on 6 for this track, but I’m curious where they go next. (And I’ve not yet heard this track in the context of the album. Maybe it works to set up the next track. And Erika’s piqued my curiosity.)

    Mark, I don’t think your analogy to a practiced painter trying to draw like a 4-year-old works. If anything, these guys aren’t Apollonian enough, need more study. To successfully sound “chaotic” you don’t want to be chaotic (randomness is usually boring); you’ve got to have a strong sense of form, to use the form for whatever visceral or suspenseful kick it gives you – and also get a kick from violating the form you’ve set up. But for the violation to occur the form has to be there. What I’m arguing is that “Tell ‘Em” needs to add one more form to what it’s got: needs a beat, or chordal development, or something.

    By the way, on my lj I linked a whole bunch of other people’s commentary on RubyBlue and Sleigh Bells, if you’re interested.

  17. By “incompetent” I meant “it sounds like a gigantic fucking mess and I hated every second of listening to it, and couldn’t wait for it to be over”. And while I like what Erika says, I’m a) with Dave in that I didn’t catch any of the lyrics, b) I have no intention of listening to this again to really argue any points because this band, along with every act that people apparently can’t stop talking about in 2010 (MIA, Wavves, LCD Soundsystem, Ke$ha) really fucking bores me and can we talk about K. Michelle instead?

    *tumbleweeds, another 50 posts about Sleigh Bells, no one cares about K. Michelle, I abandon online music conversation entirely*