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SXSW 2012: Final Thoughts + Photos

Four days, 32 artists, and one physically/mentally tired guy. That about sums up my SXSW 2012 experience. While I was stumbling around Austin in a haze the last hour of the last day, my first trip to SXSW was a wonderful experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. After hearing so many great things about the city and the conference/festival, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and simply had to go just once, just to see what it was like. The end result was largely what I expected it to be, but with a few surprises thrown in as well. My hope here is to chronicle the things I think worked about SXSW, and a few that didn’t. Also, if you click past the jump, you can see all the photos I took while in Austin. If you’d like to read about individual performances that I saw last week, have a look at the following daily reports:


The Good
Perhaps the thing that makes SXSW truly great is the sheer size of it all. There are literally thousands of bands performing over a handful of days, almost all of them within the span of about 2 square miles. Getting around from show to show isn’t bad, whether you’re on foot or feel the need to take a pedicab. Of course 6th Street can get a little packed during peak hours and create some slow downs, but it’s never anything too unmanageable, even if you need to get somewhere fast. The wide array of shows and showcases happening at any given time can also create a bit of a headache, as it’s not exactly easy to pick and choose if there are 6 artists you want to see all performing at once. Learning the city and the locations of all the venues both legitimate and illegitimate goes a long way towards helping you make such tough choices based purely on conveniece and distance from where you’re currently at. Do you go see Cloud Nothings playing down the block, or do you walk 6 blocks to see Grimes? As I see it, the decision is pretty much already made for you.

Yet there are also a few SXSW music moments that you can’t always plan for, simply because they weren’t planned. There weren’t many “secret” shows this year so much as there were secret guests like Kanye West jumping on stage at the 2 Chainz show or Eminem showing up to support 50 Cent or Bruce Springsteen bringing out everyone from Jimmy Cliff to members of Arcade Fire to Tom Morello and Alejandro Escovedo. Those extra thrills only make the experience more special. Also a major contributor: the people. Austin is already something of a cultural melting pot, but with music fans and artists coming into town from all over the world, the diversity factor multiplies by about 10. But here’s the thing aboug most music fans: they’re good, friendly people. You could strike up a great conversation with the person standing next to you in line and not blink an eye. Everybody was there because they love music, and the easiest conversation starter was always finding out who they’re most excited to see while in town. The only time I ever saw anybody get angry was when a couple of people cut in line trying to get into a show. The reaction was less anger and more, “That wasn’t cool, guys.” If we as a society behaved more like everyone in Austin at SXSW did, the world would be a more peaceful place. Unless of course you’re at an A$AP Rocky show and somebody’s throwing full beer cans at the stage. That near-riot situation was a showcase of the worst side of humanity.

But outside of good music, good people and good weather, good food is another thing Austin is known for. There were food trucks and street vendors on most corners, each specializing in a different type of cuisine. You could get breakfast tacos at one place, and some Korean version of spaghetti at another. There was plenty of BBQ to be found too. If you’re a fan of slow-roasted meats that are tender and delicious, you didn’t have to walk more than a block in downtown Austin to find some. For the cheapskates, there were also a bunch of showcases giving away free food. It’s worth noting that like grocery store samples, the “food” they give you for free is often small and may not be of the highest quality. It also gets snatched up almost immediately for those reasons as well. You’re costing yourself a potentially great meal if you’re not paying for it.

The Bad
For all the great things that happen in Austin during SXSW, it’s not a perfect situation by any means. First and foremost among the issues is overcrowding. Things may get cramped when you’re walking down the street, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside many of the venues. Jam packed to the gills, trying to get anywhere close to the action was tough, let alone trying to make your way back to the exit. When things did get that bad, the waiting games began. Lines built up outside venues that were a city block or more long, everyone beholden to the “one in, one out” policy. Pitchfork’s evening showcase at Central Presbyterian Church was the height of madness, and I stood in line for 3 hours, missing Fiona Apple, just to get into the 500 capacity venue. Was it worth it? Eh, kinda. Every performance I saw there was a revelation, which is more than I can say about the other venues in town. I’m not entirely sure how all these sound engineers stay employed given how many times I saw an artist ask for a levels adjustment or something broke. I know these artists don’t get a soundcheck during SXSW and they want to put on the best show possible, but constantly stopping or even aborting some songs right in the middle because of a small issue takes away whatever mojo that might have developed in the meantime. The worst night of all was at Clive Bar, where Tycho played without any sub-bass, New Build’s monitors weren’t functioning properly, and Grimes was forced to start her set even after everything wasn’t tested to see if it was working properly (it wasn’t).

Sound issues are just one half of the paradoxes that SXSW presents. The other is overextension. While SXSW can be a great thing for artists (performing in front of music industry bigwigs brings all sorts of exposure along with it), agreeing to play 3 shows a day for 4 days in a row can put you near death’s door. Touring is tough enough when you’ve got one show every night for 3 weeks straight, but SXSW is a marathon compared to that long distance run. Artists function on little to no sleep and can easily blow out their voices from singing too much. On Thursday night I saw Grimes play a perfect show at Central Presbyterian Church. 24 hours later, she had performed at least twice more before arriving at Clive Bar with a voice that was barely there. She fought against it as hard as she could, and eventually had to call it quits in a set that was also plagued with sound problems. It was a valiant effort, but likely left most of the crowd disappointed. Then again, everyone was so kind, understanding and enthusiastic, it probably didn’t matter as much as I thought it did.

Finally, I want to mention the hierarchy that is SXSW. Your amount of access is almost entirely based upon your status within the music industry. If you’re not part of the industry and are simply looking to see some free music, there’s lots to choose from if you don’t mind a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. If there was a line anywhere, it was almost guaranteed the general public would not be allowed in, as those with badges or wristbands automatically had first dibs. Among the badges and wristbands, only the badges were given priority access into any venue. Every badge would be allowed in before any wristbands would, no matter when they showed up. Of course if I had a badge I probably wouldn’t be complaining about it, it’s just that there were so many of them. There must have been at least a dozen shows I tried to get into but was denied because the room was already filled with badges. Granted, badges cost around $900 and you should be getting something for that money, but it would be more fair if they offerend some balance like for every 100 badges let in, 10 wristbands also get in. Alas, wristband holders got the shorter end of the stick, while the general public was more shafted than anything.

To Conclude
SXSW is something that every obsessive music fan should attend at least once in their lives. It can be a genuine blast if you let it, and only gets better the more access you have. Not but a few years ago, the several day conference/festival served as a proving and development ground for new music talent. Today, that’s not really the case anymore. You may discover your new favorite band while wandering around Austin, but for the most part our discoveries are contained to the hype cycle on the good ‘ol Internet. Then again, were it not for SXSW I never would have stumbled into the band Tearist and one of the most batshit crazy/weird live shows I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure whether it was supremely stupid or incredibly clever, but if you like incomprehensible psych-pop and somebody showing an iron beam who’s boss with a lead pipe, Tearist could be for you. Outside of the occasional exposure to an artist you didn’t intend to see, you’re quite in control of your own destiny. Unless you’re the adventuresome type willing to walk into a venue without knowing or caring who’s performing, most identify and target acts based on personal tastes or recommendations of others. With so many choices, you can use the time to check a few acts off your personal bucket list. That’s what I did, and though I didn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, I feel like what I did see was extremely worthwhile anyways, with the aforementioned issues or not. I hope I get to go again, be it next year or in 10 years. And if you didn’t go, I hope you take the opportunity to get to Austin soon. It’s a great American city, and the Live Music Capital of the World for a reason.

Click past the jump for photos of many of the bands I saw at this year’s SXSW, in alphabetical order:

SXSW 2012: Saturday

St. Patrick’s Day and SXSW collided this year, and the result was mayhem. People everywhere, and if they weren’t looking to see a band they were looking for a drink. In some cases it was both. There was plenty of fun to be had, but you had to keep a close eye on drunken revelers at shows – they were liable to do anything. I’m not going to get into it, except to say I barely avoided getting vomited on. But Saturday also meant the final day of SXSW Music, and the offerings were actually a little more meager than in days previous. Still, there was plenty to do and see if you were motivated enough, so here’s my recap of the fourth and final day of my SXSW adventure.

After 3 days of standing on my feet and walking everywhere, my body was ready to quit on me last night. I took that into account and slept later than usual to try and bring my energy back up for one more day of live music on the streets of Austin. It was mid-afternoon by the time I ventured out of my hotel room, and I headed straight for the outskirts and the Mess With Texas party. There were a few artists performing there I’d been wanting to see but hadn’t got around to. The first of them was 2:54, a British band made up of two sisters that have an affinity for shoegaze and 90s rock. They’re probably best experienced in total darkness, but there was still something gothic about their outdoor tent performance. They didn’t play for very long, but were remarkably good anyways. 2:54’s EP Scarlet is out now, and is deserving of your attention if you haven’t heard it yet.

Tanlines followed 2:54, though they were playing the big indoor stage instead of the small outside tent one. Despite not having released any albums yet (their debut Mixed Emotions comes out Tuesday), Tanlines earned the spot of pre-headliner. They’ve put out a few singles and a pair of EPs, not to mention a bunch of remixes, so based on all that and some good ‘ol hype, the band is doing pretty well. Their set went pretty well too, flush with mostly new material that got the crowd dancing. The set also proved the band has moved beyond simple, straight dance music and into something more complex and interesting. The duo are still a little awkward when it comes to stage banter, as percussionist Jesse Cohen’s go-to line was always “We’re Tanlines.” Seriously, he said it after almost every song. Maybe he thought we’d forgotten, or maybe he just wanted to make sure fans that were waiting on A$AP Rocky were fully aware of who they were and what kind of music they were making.

Speaking of A$AP Rocky, I was mainly at Mess With Texas to see him. As he’s another member of my Class of 2012, I was pretty much obligated to check up and find out what his live show is like. Well, first of all, he showed up an hour late. That wasn’t very cool. But when he did finally make it, along with his crew the A$AP Mob, he put on a show worth waiting an hour to see. The crowd was riled up and ready to go, and he gave them exactly what they wanted – cuts off his mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP. They sang/rapped along, hands in the air with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for huge hip hop stars like Jay-Z and Kanye West. “I don’t give a fuck what y’all do here; moshing, crowd surfing, throwing shit, or even fucking each other – just so long as you have a good time,” Rocky told the crowd. So cartons of water were being thrown around like crazy, smoke filled the air, and the A$AP Mob dove off the stage and into the crowd more than once. Rocky also told the crowd that he tried to come to SXSW last year to perform, but couldn’t afford the plane ticket. Clearly his situation has changed, what with a reported $3 million record deal. If you think he’s big now, just wait 6 months.

I wandered over to the polar opposite side of town and ACL: Live at the Moody with a small bit of extra time on my hands before Sleigh Bells were set to perform their only SXSW show. They were supposed to have another act on the bill to open for them, however it seems that slot was never filled. That meant my early arrival was more or less a waste of time. I stood inside the theater for an extra hour just waiting and anticipating. I’ve only seen Sleigh Bells in an outdoor festival setting, so when they took the stage with an intense light show, it was quite a different experience. Of course they started with “True Shred Guitar”, as the track was built almost solely for the purpose of opening a show. From there they bounced freely between their debut album Treats and their new one Reign of Terror. Obviously the older material got the better response, but I also think a couple of the newer songs just generally wouldn’t do well live. Actually, it’s just the slower ballads like “End of the Line” that kind of takes the show down a notch. You do need a breather now and then though. Of the new songs, “Demons” was by far the most potent, proving its status as the best thing on Reign of Terror. All the while Alexis Krauss danced around the stage, sometimes approached the barricade, and even crowd surfed once during “Rill Rill”. Derek Miller and the other guitarist are the spark in that live show, and Krauss is the flame. What an explosively good set.

Upon leaving that show, I came to the realization that one of my other Class of 2012 artists was getting ready to perform a few blocks away: Kreayshawn. So to Austin Music Hall it was, only to find out they were way behind on their showcase bill. It was a party being put on by celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, and as he said himself, sound issues forced them to delay some of the performances. So in order to get to Kreayshawn I had to sit through sets from Ed Sheeran, Cher Lloyd, and Dragonette. I’m not really going to comment on any of those sets, except to say all 3 are interesting and dynamic artists at different points of success right now. None of their music hits my sweet spot, but they’re all talented in their own ways. Due to the packed bill and delays, artists were being held to 20 minute sets. Kreayshawn’s was about that long, and she had time to do 4 of her tracks. The requisite “Bumpin Bumpin” and “Gucci Gucci” both made an appearance, and she also did a couple new ones as well. The first was about sniffing glue, which afterwards she told the crowd she doesn’t condone drug use. The second was about “the most important meal of the day” aka breakfast. It included the lyrical gem, “Grapes, what’s up? Breakfast!” And she’s supposed to be a rising voice in hip hop? Even I’m starting to doubt my decision to place her among my Class of 2012. Still, I will not pass official judgment until her debut album is out later this year.

If Kreayshawn’s set had happened on time, I would have been able to go see !!! perform. Alas, I missed their set, though I walked past their stage and heard a little of it on my way to try and see Givers for my last set of the night. Turns out a lot of other people wanted to see Givers too, and I wound up shut out there as well due to capacity. With that, I made the executive call to go and see a band I’ve seen a couple times before back in Chicago because that’s where they’re from too. That band was JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. They’ve been playing shows all over Austin this past week, 11 in total, and I wanted to see how they were faring after such a grueling schedule. Not only did they survive, they still sounded great too and with energy to spare. They’re probably more tired than I am, and I’m about ready to collapse. It felt fitting to end with a band from back home, as that’s where I’ll be headed soon anyways. Near the end of their set, the guys did a funked up cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, and the whole experience just felt like it came full circle. I’ve loved my time in Austin so much these last few days, the complete exhaustion aside, but I’m even more excited to go back to Chicago. SXSW has been so much fun, I may just try to do it again next year.

Album Review: Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror [Mom + Pop]

Sleigh Bells have an expiration date. That expiration date is sooner rather than later. Quite simply, their sustainability factor is very low. They are in many ways the equivalent of a ribbon of magnesium set aflame – igniting quickly, burning white hot for a few seconds and then going dark. The reason why they’re working on such a limited time frame has less to do with the hype cycle and more to do with the niche they’ve carved out for themselves. Their heavy metal riffage and schoolgirl innocent vocals are unique to a fault, because as exciting and headbangingly good as the songs on their debut album Treats were, they failed to expand beyond that realm. There’s only so much that can be done with the tools the duo is currently using, meaning that unless they get truly inventive, they’re liable to go stale at any minute. Enter their sophmore record Reign of Terror. For those that thought Treats was a wild experiment in volume and excess, it appears that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now the band is looking to take down the unsinkable Titanic.

Reign of Terror opens to the sound of crowd noise and singer Alexis Krauss shouting from a distance, “What the fuck is up? Come on!” If you’ve ever seen Sleigh Bells’ intense and fun live show, you know that intro is pretty true to life. Fists in the air and devil horns held high, the band wants you to know that this record is more than just a collection of songs – it’s an Event with a capital E. After a solid minute of shouting slogans behind some riffs to pump people up, “True Shred Guitar” actually kicks into full stereo mode sans crowd. “Push it, push it, push it,” Krauss insists beneath a healthy layer of vocal fuzz. That seems to be the band’s mantra for the entire album as they attempt to go bigger and bolder than ever before. If the guitars were cranked up to 11 last time, they’re now at 12, buzzing hotter than a nest filled with angry hornets. Yet in spite of the much more heavy metal nature of the songs courtesy of Derek Miller, the vocals are decidedly more stable and pop-oriented than they were on the previous record.

For much of Treats, Krauss resorted to cheerleader-like shouting that often wound up being obscured by an already crowded and red-level mix. Listen to “Infinity Guitars” or “Crown on the Ground” or “A/B Machines” and you’ll find they have more in common vocally with straight hip hop verses than they do pop songs. That record’s best moment came via “Rill Rill”, where acoustic guitars calmed the noise level and Krauss delivered a sugary sweet schoolgirl vocal. They seemed to take that song as the vocal model for most of Reign of Terror, which as a result makes it sound that much deeper and more balanced on the whole. It helps that Krauss is much more up-front and unobscured in the mix, sharing equal weight with the supremely heavy guitars. The best example of how the two opposing forces meet in the middle comes via the album’s first single “Comeback Kid”, which is bouncy and poppy without losing its harsh edge. One of the record’s quietest and most ballad-infused moments comes on “End of the Line”, where Krauss is given enough room to whisper parts of her vocal while Miller puts the power chords on the shelf and settles for some snaking 80s-esque guitar solos. “Road to Hell” holds a remarkably similar constitution to it, only the execution is a little choppier and less catchy on the whole.

Those craving something more in line with earlier Sleigh Bells material will find a couple moments to take in some fist-pumping nostalgia. “Crush” feels like it should have a music video that’s thematically similar to Nirvana’s classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is to say the band should be performing with cheerleaders at a high school pep rally inside a smoky gymnasium. And “Demons” works exceptionally well when paired with the delusional, drug-induced visions that Beavis and Butt-Head experience while lost in the desert in “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America”. Considering the main riff in the song was ripped almost directly from that TV series, the comparison makes even more sense. As the record winds to a close, the band chooses to try a few different things that work well thematically but turn in mixed results. “You Lost Me” is about suicide, but plays up a sympathetic angle to it that results in the most beautiful track Sleigh Bells have ever composed. From there it only gets darker and less distinctive. “Never Say Die” is unable to stave off death, and “D.O.A.” takes what little signs of life it has and sends it spiraling downwards. Both bear the marks of 80s metal ballads, but fail to be inspiring or memorable.

In so many ways, Reign of Terror is a better record than Treats was. Sleigh Bells show promising advancements in their sound and the way they structure their songs that would seem to suggest they’ve got a real chance at surviving far longer than anybody might think. Perhaps the best thing about the changes they’ve made on this new album is how purely subtle they are, remaining close enough to what they did on their debut to satisfy those fans while making it easier to court new ones. But for as smart as the album is, it’s also more limiting than the last one. The band has entrenched themselves further into the metal-meets-pop dynamic than ever before, and it could come back to bite them in time. Also, while built upon a stronger foundation, the songs on Reign of Terror are less immediate and memorable than the in-your-face nature of Treats. In the longer term though the new album grows on you and its charms become that much more evident. Sometimes those are the real treats.

Reign Of Terror Sampler

Buy Reign of Terror from Amazon

Album Review: Cults – Cults [Columbia/In the Name Of]

As oh so many bands know in this day and age, hype can be a very dangerous thing. The cycles move so quickly that you can wind up abandoned just as fast as you were picked up. One of the biggest success stories as of late has been Cults. The duo of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion first met in San Diego, transplanted themselves to New York, and quietly composed some music they were self-conscious about sharing with anyone. When they finally did hand over a couple tracks to friends, those songs eventually made their way to the inbox of Chris at Gorilla Vs. Bear, who made quick moves to sign them to his brand new label Forest Family. The “Go Outside” 7″ single turned Cults from unknowns to one of the most hyped acts online in a matter of weeks. The buzz was and remained high for such an extended period that many larger labels sought to sign the band, with Columbia ultimately winning out (and Lily Allen’s label In the Name Of getting UK distribution rights). The hype has died down somewhat, given the amount of time that passed between their initial impact and what will finally be their self-titled debut out the first week in June, but one gets the sense that Cults wanted it that way. The initial impact may be lessened as a result, but this band appears to be in it for the longer haul anyways.

Those that have been paying close attention to the comings and goings of Cults in the last year will likely have already heard the first three tracks on their debut full length. If perchance you missed them, Soundcloud seems to be your friend. Starting with “Abducted”, things take on a very lo-fi aesthetic for the first 40 seconds of the song. It sounds like a microphone was placed in the middle of a room and Oblivion stood on one side playing his acoustic guitar and Follin stood on the other singing and playing a glockenspiel. There’s an all natural impact straight into full stereo sound though, complete with everything cozying up to your traditional studio quality. That’s also the first time the immensely catchy chorus hits, sucking you in not only to the track but the album itself, done in the most lively and fun way possible. That’s the first big sign that Cults appear to be more than just a flash in the pan act with one great single. Speaking of that one great single, “Go Outside” is next, and it’s as hard-hitting and wonderful as ever. If you thought you listened to it too many times last year, taking a short break and returning to it finds the song in just as great of a form as when you left it. With a whole new set of fans ready to discover this band, expect to hear a lot more “Go Outside”. For “You Know What I Mean”, the band makes a much more defined statement as to what the rest of the record will sound like. While anything you’ve heard prior only hinted at it, this is the track that feels truly retro, reaching back to the girl groups of the 60s for inspiration. It’s a very sweet and again catchy song where the waltzy pace, combined with Follin’s syrupy vocals and some well-placed finger snaps only enhance the impact. Those intimately familiar with the “Go Outside” 7″ single from last year will also recognize the b-side “Most Wanted” showing up towards the middle of the record. The retro style continues with a positively lovely piano and glockenspiel groove that mixes together rather effortlessly with everything from keyboards to a light touch of cello.

Nothing else on “Cults” is as strong as those first few tracks hitting you one after the other like a boxer with tremendous speed and agility. Just because there’s not another massive, drool-inducing single on the second half of the record doesn’t mean that it’s slouching in any way whatsoever. It’s like walking into a room full of supermodels and then exiting to find a group of very beautiful women on the other side. They may not be supermodels, but they’re still very satisfying to hear. There are no flat out ugly songs on this album, and being entirely listenable not to mention enjoyable from front to back is a rarity to accomplish anyways. At 35 minutes too, it’s a breeze to get through and you’re almost naturally inclined to hit the play button again and restart the thing. Earworms such as “Never Heal Myself” and the sprinkled electronics of “Oh My God” continue to make strong use of the glockenspiel and help push the band’s material from an indie pop range into something people will likely call twee. There is that certain preciousness present in most of the songs, particularly the Belle and Sebastian-leaning man/woman call-and-response of “Bumper”, but the bits of darkness found within the lyrics help to lessen the cute factor. There’s a distinctive fear echoed in a few of the songs that deals with a range of topics. Relationships is a big one, but also growing up and more general ways we live our lives all have bits of apprehension or paranoia associated with them. Follin wonders, “What’s wrong with my brain/cause I seem to have lost it” on “You Know What I Mean”, and doubts her ability to be genuine on “Never Heal Myself” with the lines, “I could never be myself, so fuck you”. The small bit of irony is how the line is sung, with Follin keeping sassy in a song that feels decidedly upbeat and cheerful.

Most of “Cults” maintains that same lighthearted nature, melodies bouncing along practically oblivious to some of the more ominous lyrics paired alongside it. That’s just one part of the appeal of this band and why their debut is so great. The songs they’re making aren’t necessarily doing much if anything new that we haven’t heard before, it’s the WAY they’re doing it that makes them more compelling than average. A little twist on the verse-chorus-verse here, a little extra instrument popping up there, and it goes a much longer way than you might think. There’s also a strong unifying principle across these 11 tracks in the similar qualities that they share. Nothing sounds like it doesn’t belong there, and it’s oddly reminiscent of another much-hyped band’s debut record last year, Sleigh Bells’ “Treats”. Oddly enough, Shane Stoneback produced both “Treats” and “Cults”, though his work on the latter record was much more of a tweaking role than a sonic shift. But while Sleigh Bells and Cults essentially sound nothing alike, the emotions that both their records evoke are close to one another. It’s the energetic, party vibe that makes you want to throw on a pair of sunglasses and spend some serious time outdoors. Seasonally speaking, both are very much summer albums as well, making now the perfect time for Cults to be putting this out there. Prepare for the hype cycle to once again start fresh for these two, because as their self-titled debut proves, Cults are the real thing. Be a good boy or girl and drink the Kool-Aid like the rest of us.

Cults – Go Outside (7″ version)
Cults – Most Wanted (7″ version)

Cults – Abducted

Cults – You Know What I Mean

For a limited time, stream the entire album at NPR

Preorder “Cults” from Amazon

Album Review: Sleigh Bells – Treats [N.E.E.T./Mom + Pop]

What’s the loudest bass you’ve ever heard? Are you the sort of person who enjoys buying a highly expensive subwoofer and cranking the volume up as loud as possible in either the car or at home? Is the noise loud enough to make the entire neighborhood shake? You might think that those sorts of albums are almost exclusively hip hop specific, with “those damn kids and their rap records”, but that’d be before you met the duo of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss, otherwise known as Sleigh Bells. They caught the attention of critics and music fans everywhere last year thanks to their wild live show and an EP of demos that spread around the internet like wildfire. Their unique sound, combining Miller’s intensely loud guitars and Krauss’s calm and collected vocals, felt familiar even though most people have struggled to accurately define it. “Noise pop” is the tag most frequently affixed to Sleigh Bells’ music, and given that it’ll split your eardrums while bouncing around in your head for days, that’s not too far from correct. Now with debut album “Treats” released digitally last week (June 1st physically) on M.I.A.’s label N.E.E.T. Recordings, the duo truly seems ready for their close-up. The question is are we?

If you heard the Sleigh Bells demo EP last year, no matter whether you may have loved it or hated it, those tracks reappear on “Treats” in re-recorded form. The good news is that these new versions are still louder than you could imagine, they just sound a little clearer and better mixed. It also makes for some great highlights across the record, as songs like “A/B Machines” and “Crown on the Ground” are more compelling than ever. The bad news comes only in the form of lyrical content, because those looking for deeper meaning in the words of these songs will be left high and dry. Assuming that Krauss does all the lyrics, there are very few actual verses and many times songs will only feature a phrase or two repeated over and over ad nauseum. The great benefit of this is that they get stuck in your head that much easier. The thing about those words though is that their main purpose is to act as a supplement to all the insanity taking place across the rest of the track. These are beats and guitar parts probably best designed for somebody to rap on top of, and given that Krauss is smartly not feigning to have any sort of rhyming skills allows yout to accept her lack of lyrical meanings and variations with little to no thought. Besides that, the main intention of this album is to have a whole lot of fun with few consequences (except for maybe hearing damage), so Sleigh Bells hit it out of the park in that respect.

Assuming you’re okay with excessively loud rock music with a sharp, beat-driven edge to it, “Treats” is exactly what its title describes. Miller and Krauss are unique crafters of a record that’s both ambitious and a blast to listen to, if that’s your sort of thing. Divisive is one of the best words to describe how people are going to react to this album, because for all the interesting compositions and fun it might otherwise bring, there will be plenty who won’t understand or just generally won’t like all the noise. The real question now is where Sleigh Bells will go from here. Sustaining the same sandblasting sound for 30 minutes of excellence is one thing, but to pull it off for multiple records might get a little tedious. It also begs the question of how long “Treats” might remain in the good graces of its fans before they move onto something else and forget all about it. This isn’t a life-changing record, but it is a highly enjoyable one for the moment. Their popularity might only wind up a momentary blip on the music radar, but for the moment it feels like a crater filled with noise, announcing that a loud, brash rock and roll record can still wholly satisfy if done right.

Sleigh Bells – Tell ‘Em

Stream the entire album at NPR

Buy “Treats” from iTunes
Preorder “Treats” from Insound

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