You all know the back story by now: several years ago guitarist Derek Miller was shredding in a hardcore band while vocalist Alexis Krauss was singing in a teen pop group of all things. But they came together in Brooklyn in 2009 and quickly proceeded to make a noisey, raw and aggressive album called Treats, which topped most critics’ best of lists that year and earned them countless fans. Their sophomore release came in 2012 in the form of Reign of Terror. Like Treats, Terror packed boisterous, sometimes distorted beats and lots of abrasive guitars. Where Terror differed from Treats was in terms of the melodies and vocals. Treats had been more like a solo album that Miller simply had Krauss sing on, like a guest star, and her vocals were largely buried in the mix. But Terror was a truly collaborative effort and the songs benefited from Krauss’ keen sense of melody, razor-sharp lyrics and sugary sweet vocals. Yet, in spite of these elements, which made Sleigh Bells somewhat more pop, their songs were also even heavier, so fans of Treats were pleased with the album and it also earned them lots of new fans. Suffice to say it was a winner all around.
Bitter Rivals finds Miller and Krauss expanding their sound even further, pulling out new tricks aplenty to keep things interesting. The title track opens the album, for example, with acoustic guitar complimented by dogs — yes, dogs — whimpering and barking. But when it hits the 30 second mark, a heavy as hell beat drops and Miller’s insistent shredding kicks in. Meanwhile, Krauss delivers what are probably her cleanest Sleigh Bells vocals to date, especially during the chorus, which loses the guitars entirely in favor of a subtle beat that allows Krauss’ voice to shine, to which end her vocals sound prettier than ever. “You are my bitter rival / But I need you for survival,” she sings over and over again, her pitch considerably higher than on anything we’ve heard her sing on a Sleigh Bells album previously.
The album’s most unexpected track is the R&B-flavored “Young Legends,” which is considerably mellower than anything they’ve done before. The beats are still punchy, but they’re certainly not of the in-your-face variety Sleigh Bells’ fans are accustomed to. And the loud, crunchy guitars are gone in favor of subtle acoustic guitar riffing. “Young legends die all the time and so will…,” Krauss sings repeatedly at the end of the song. She doesn’t sing the word “I” at the end of it, but that’s clearly what she means, though she sings it very matter-of-factly, like she couldn’t care less if she dies young. It’s hardly a serious song though, as it would seem to actually be making fun of young legends dying young.
“You Don’t Get Me Twice” begins with the raw, traditional Sleigh Bells style of guitars, but it alternates between that manner of shredding and delicate acoustic guitars and even a bit of piano. It also drops the thumping beats for finger snaps and hand claps at times. “You don’t get me twice / I’ll put your heart in a vice,” Krauss sings, sounding cool and confident. It’s her brazen attitude that makes the song fit well with the more traditional Sleigh Bells style of songs on the album. “It’s a terrifying baby, American dream” she sings during one of the song’s hooks. I couldn’t begin to speculate as to how that fits with the lyrics that otherwise would seem to be quite sexual, but it sounds wonderful.
“I’ll go to hell with you / Here’s the proof,” Krauss sings during “To Hell With You,” which is the closest thing to a ballad that the duo has ever released. Here, her vocals sound quite natural and entirely beautiful if not dreamy, inflecting Sleigh Bells with even more of a pop sound than on their last album.
The album’s catchiest song is easily “Minnie,” which packs your typical mammoth Sleigh Bells beats with raw, distorted guitars. “Minnie, Minnie, go count your pennies / I’m sorry to say you don’t have any,” Krauss teases. Listening to this song is almost like witnessing her picking on a kid in the park after school when she was a teenager. But it’s exactly that sort of smarminess that makes Sleigh Bells so appealing somehow, just another one of their punk elements. And perhaps that’s where Bitter Rivals differs slightly from previous Sleigh Bells albums. Where you could call Treats and Terror noise pop, Bitter Rivals is more punk rock. One thing is for certain: they’re continuing to make the music they so desire to make without giving a damn about genre distinctions or how people are going to respond to it. Of course, I’m sure they want their fans to embrace this record, but with all of the new things they’ve incorporated into their sound on this album, it’s highly possible that some of them will hate it and you get the feeling Miller and Krauss aren’t the least bit troubled by that possibility. If that’s not punk rock, I don’t know what is.