Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" is one of Those Songs. Like Aretha Franklin's "Respect" (with all due respect!), it's a classic tune originally written from the perspective of a man — in this case, co-songwriter Ne-Yo — but turned into something transcendent when sung by a woman. It piles winning idea on winning idea, from the "to the left, to the left" opening, which doubles as a dance-floor instruction and a mundane command, on to the "you was untrue" twist, right through to the soaring bridge, where the former Destiny's Child diva crows, "Replacing you is so easy." The end result is one of the 21st century's greatest breakup ballads, universal without resorting to the generic, and utterly unmistakable.
Sleigh Bells' decision to cover "Irreplaceable," then, is totally welcome. On paper, it's a match between one of the most original-sounding bands making music today — there's a reason we made the duo's Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller the cover stars of SPIN'S first "new" issue — and some of the best material from the charts. And Krauss, with her background in teen-pop group Rubyblue, has some great vocal abilities of her own. As with Chairlift's recent cheeky cover of Mrs. Jay-Z's "Party," this is no half-hearted exercise, no indie-schmindie put-on.
And yet. As recorded for BBC Radio 1 (and ripped by the NJ Underground), Sleigh Bells' straightforward rendition of this hit from Beyoncé's 2006 album B'Day, while never less than pleasant, feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than infuse the original with the Reign of Terror band's own noisy spirit, they stay pretty faithful to the original, with Savage Garden-y acoustic strums, a clicking rhythm track, and sparkly arpeggios. Krauss's feather-light voice is better than so many others in indie-rock, but cast in such a direct comparison to Queen B's brassy declarations, she can't win.
Which is probably OK. If in the end, like adult-contemporary piano-ballad smash "Best Thing I Never Had," a relative trifle from Beyoncé's often-extraordinary 2011 effort 4, Sleigh Bells' "Irreplaceable" cover succeeds at least in reminding us to appreciate the original, then it's doing something right. Let's not ever for a second get to thinking Beyoncé is replaceable.