Sometimes your ears need a good pummeling, something raw and shredded to blaze through your ear canal. And Treats, the debut album by Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, will give it to you (and have the courtesy to leave some scar tissue to remember it by). Derek Miller, formerly of the Florida hardcore band Poison the Well, was single-handedly crafting an onslaught of noise in his bedroom with an army of guitars, mad beats, and wicked production, but the package was all blood and no tears.
This is where serendipity steps in. Miller happened to be waiting on Alexis Krauss and her mother at a Brazilian restaurant when they got to talking about music. A one-time vocalist of pop girl group RubyBlue, Krauss had abandoned singing to be a fifth-grade schoolteacher in the Bronx, but Miller convinced her to come out of retirement and, a week later, Sleigh Bells was born (and the world is better for it).
The band made their first big splash at last fall’s CMJ Music Marathon festival, where they left countless eardrums ringing, a buzzing forget-me-not. It wasn’t too long before word-of-mouth spread across the music blogosphere all the way to M.I.A., who promptly signed them to her record label, N.E.E.M. With only a handful of rough demos in circulation, the band was enjoying skyrocket success without an actual official release. It remained to be seen if the higher production gloss of a studio album would keep the lo-fi growl intact or polish the grit away.
Thankfully, while sounding fuller and clearer, Treats retains the sharp-fanged edge of the demos. The album sparks with first single “Tell ‘Em,” an amalgam of hand claps, layered electric guitar, and the zip zap of laser weaponry. Under all the commotion is Alexis Krauss’s sunny delivery of a pep talk. “All the kids these days/ Do you really wanna be that way? Did you do your best today?” With the authority of your friend’s hot older sister, she advises that it’s cool to stay in school.
A similar in-your-face vivacity works its way on tracks like “Riot Rhythm,” a bossy, hyperactive appeal to march onto the nearest dance floor; “Crown on the Ground,” which can be likened to an air raid over a warehouse dancehall, and “Infinity Guitars,” a song about cowboys and indians that sounds almost identical to its demo until it blows sky high with bloated bass and actual sleigh bells! Some songs even veer into unadulterated metal territory, most strikingly on “Straight A’s,” a serrated jam with a guitar riff that would fit right into any bad-ass Tarantino flick.
But there’s also a softer, milder side to Sleigh Bells. On the perfectly feminine “Run the Heart,” Krauss coos, “You wanna hang your name on me,” before telling her latest suitor that he can’t handle her. And on “Rill Rill,” which features a downright groovy Funkadelic sample, the band manages to stick an ominous reference to the devil’s call sign (666) and the Pentagon right alongside a ridiculously amusing line like: “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces.”
There’s a certain adolescent playfulness all over Treats and the album’s cover art speaks directly to that. At first glance, it’s an ordinary scene ripped from a high school yearbook: a pyramid of spunky cheerleaders armed with pom-poms. But, on closer inspection, their faces appear to have melted off. This corrupted pep is what Sleigh Bells is all about: each song is skeletally a pop melody that is then warped and violated by thunderous synth explosions, chain saws, and intergalactic gunfights. It’s as if a hardcore sensibility infected the air of a pep rally: out of nowhere, the rahs become roars and the cheerleaders start punching each other out. If only high school could have been this entertaining.