Back in February I wrote about my observations from watching the Grammy Awards. In a pro-human, patriotic fervor I stated, “Popular culture sets trends or reflects what is trending in our culture, and if the Grammy Awards performances that I saw are in fact to be believed, many musical barriers are being breached. More importantly, these performances are showing that despite bending, blending, or breaking genres, the results need not be a bland homogenous mess.” I swear, if you strained your ears you could have heard the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background.
However, I have to admit that after proclaiming that a new era of genre mashing is upon us and reigning triumphant, I grew concerned that, in fact, we were instead bearing witness to the musical end times; an era that replaces singers with auto tune, musical lineage with rampant commercialism, and professional music journalism with blogging chumps like me. Thankfully, my faith in the musical system has been restored.
The May 27, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine featured a small article by Jenny Eliscu about a band called Sleigh Bells. It did exactly what music journalism should; get a person excited about music. With only a little more than half a page, Eliscu managed to convince me to hop onto to iTunes to give Sleigh Bells a listen, and once I was there, it took under two minutes for me to click on the “buy album” button. Good journalists have the ability to find the story within the facts that will help readers care about what is going on. The same thing holds true in music journalism. Here are the facts: the Sleigh Bells are a two person band from Brooklyn that have a guitarist (Derek Miller), a vocalist (Alexis Krauss), and an iPod.
From those facts we hear the story of a guitarist who continually fought with his cheap hardware that left his sounds unsatisfying. Out of frustration he kept turning up the master for his recordings and the sounds became harsher and harsher, until it became the sound for Sleigh Bells. We hear about a female vocalist who until recently was a fourth-grade teacher and has now transformed into a dynamic on stage presence despite still being reserved in her day-to-day life. Then we hear how artist M.I.A., of “Paper Planes” fame, fell in love with the group. “When Lil’ Wayne said he was making a rock record, I wanted it to sound like what Sleigh Bells sound like. They’ve got the beats and the 808s of hip-hop, and a hard-core, Slayer-type thing.”
Sleigh Bells’ “Treats” album is tough to describe. It’s got rock guitar riffs, hip hop beats, and pop sensibilities. Obviously this isn’t the first time this trio has been used. There was that annoying trend a few years back where it seemed every rock band also had to have a DJ at a turntable. If you could’ve have known that Sleigh Bells was waiting in the wings, you never would have stood for listening to that crap. (This is assuming you did. If you didn’t, good for you, but quit gloating and get back into this review.)
I view “Treats” as an experience album. It’s hard to explain, but in my head all music falls into these weird personal categories: stuff to dance to, stuff to sing along with, stuff to scream along with, stuff to work out to, stuff to write to, and so on and so forth. “Treats” is an album you press play on and let it swallow you up. Sometimes I quasi head bang to it, sometimes I bust out some of my finest 80’s hip hop booty shakes, and sometimes I just play it for reliably awesome background noise.
One thing I do not do to it is sing. For Sleigh Bells, vocals appear to be just another instrument in the band. Often times the lead singer isn’t singing words and instead is singing rhythmic syllables. For instance, the song “Riot Rhythm” has the rousing lyrics of “ah, ah ah ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah ah ah, ah ah, ah, ah.” Those exact lyrics also show up in the song “Run the Heart”. The lead vocals are mixed at the same sound level as the instruments, so they often blend into the music and other times her voice is run through some effects (no auto tune I’m relieved to say). I hate to say it, but despite dozens or more listenings, I could not tell you the complete lyrics to any of the songs.
“Treats” helps reaffirm my belief that there is something to be gained from musicians blending musical genres together and thinking outside of the box. Yes, it looks like auto tune is here to stay, that the traditional music industry will continue to care more about money than artistic quality, and that amateur music enthusiasts like myself will continue to pretend that we are musical trendsetters. What’s fantastic is that despite all of that, all that which is bad, something truly original and good can still rise up out of that quagmire.
Thank you Rolling Stone for introducing me to Sleigh Bells, I really needed that.
Here’s “Crown on the Ground”, one of my favorites off the album.