- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
Label: Mom + Pop
Sleigh Bells are fight-pop for grown-ups. Left jab. Snap back your head. Shifty footwork. Right cross to your dread. Shower. Dress. Grind.
Sure, the duo's first two albums of Double-Dutch noisegasms have bewitched some geeked young Tumblristas or @rookiemag exceptional children, uber-goobers who fantasize about joining frontsiren Alexis Krauss' teen-girl-gang and stylishly shanking, say, the entire cast of Spring Breakers; or one-boy-band first-person-shooters who envisage artfully slapstick bloodbaths via Derek E. Miller's pocket-rocket guitar-annihilation mixology. God bless youthful imagination.
But Bitter Rivals is not about serotonin-gushing wake-up brawls or romantic rollercoasters beset by mixed-metaphorical wrecking balls. These songs hum with wry, eye-to-eye tuff talk, delivered by the clear-headed older sis of Ke$ha in her dizzy "Die Young" guise – which might as well be a Bubble-Yum, Busby-Berkeley picaresque refix of a Sleigh Bells demo, with drum machines and guitars nipping at each other's heels, providing godforsaken millenials their daily synthetic dose of whoosh-and-tickle. But with Krauss' chirpy yet teeth-baring taunts, boosted by a clock-cleaning mix from Kanye West's chief engineer Andrew Dawson, this is an album that upends such fantasies. Having processed pop's romanticism/nihilism/cynicism, as well as the familiar modern sounds those isms have inspired, Miller refines the duo's roiling, retro-future chest-bumps into agile, anger-is-an-energy chin-checks.
While 2010 debut Treats was an exotic, overdubbed roar (Big Black-meets-the-Waitresses for people who give a shit about those references), and 2012's Reign of Terror winked through a heavy heart at Mutt Lange's scorched-earth sound field, Bitter Rivals is sly and sleek. Over a bumptious, Latin freestyle swing, with alternately peppy and dolorous keyboards, Krauss almost impatiently intones the anti-hero dismissal, "Young legends die all the time / But I don't mind / Don't close your eyes" (on "Young Legends"). "Love Sick" slides into an R&B-swooning chorus where Krauss counsels with a stern croon, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should / Is that understood?" On "Tiger Kit," a '70s dry-hump guitar snarls through a Mantronik electro thump and synth flourish (plus moo-cow sample for comic effect), while Krauss crafts a nimble, winding vocal melody to advise, "Never trust a tiger can't be tamed."
But perhaps Krauss and Miller's most crafty Bitter Rivals track is "You Don't Get Me Twice": Ye olde nasty guitar riff provides a reliably dinky engine, but the way the nuanced melody emerges from the ricocheting beats and acoustic interlude and Krauss' over-it yips is mesmerizing. "You can't find me / The American Dream" she shouts at one point, and suddenly, Sleigh Bells' darkened-playground project begins to work as a comment on how America breeds heartbreak by forcing everyone — kids and adults alike — to either be or worship a shiny, sexy new object. Of course, you could say she's just spouting word-jumble clichés at some asshole, but fuck that. With her severe bangs, black leather jackets, cherry-red lips, cut-off shorts, blank sneers, and cheer-team screeches, Krauss has always come on like the budding demonic mascot of the American Nightmare. But here she's evolving into some sort of finger-wagging avenging angel.
People likely to embrace such fight songs are not dreamers, but the squinting-into-the-light ex-kids now desperate for a soundtrack to just get them through the motherfucking day with a regular pulse (if not their self-respect), and hopefully without having offed themselves or their friends or neighbors. On Bitter Rivals' title track, you can imagine those ex-kids involuntarily grinning through their gritted teeth — "Been Caught Stealing" barks (and whimpers), Shangri-Las finger-snaps, Dickensian throwdown ("It was the best of times / It was the worst of times / I had to kill the new sheriff in town"), every sound taut and abrupt; it's the album's undeniable manifesto. A brittle acoustic strum busts into an adrenalized rumble that builds to the almost whispered chorus, backed only by a cozy 808 clap: "You are my bitter rival / But I need you for survival."
This is the reality — fighting not winning. Nemeses are inevitable, so make sure they're worthy. Dying young is for chumps. But as Krauss commands, as if to reassure you that she'll always be in your ear urging you on, "Be not afraid." It's not Shakespeare, but it's not Dr. Luke, either. There are other options, you know.