Sleigh Bells (Boston Globe, 7.16.2010)

Posted on July 25, 2010


Sleigh Bells, the impossibly hot New York duo of guitarist/sound engineer Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss, hit the ground running so fast last year that critics still haven’t caught up.

A few songs built on charmingly lunkheaded electro beats and arena-ready guitar and released on the Internet were all they needed last year. By November, the blogosphere had bestowed them with breakout status before they even had an official release. Even better, the group’s most obvious forebear, the noise-pop provocateur M.I.A., jumped on the bandwagon, giving the band a ringing endorsement and tapping Miller to produce on her new record. A helplessly enamored world of fans wondered: Could something this blunt and irresistible really be a good thing?

“I don’t really believe in the concept of ‘guilty pleasures,’ ’’ says Miller one afternoon from the tour van as the band winds its way up the coast toward Boston. “But, sure — however they want to like it is fine.’’

The music on the group’s debut album, “Treats’’ (N.E.E.T./Mom + Pop), which came out this spring, torches the conventions of both indie snobbery and clean pop tastes. Combining laser-blast guitars from the noisier corners of punk, Krauss’s icy vocals, and pep-rally stomps copped from cheap electric beat stations, it lacks the delicate experimentation that most music critics have recently fawned over. This stuff might have more in common with Lil’ Jon than Animal Collective.

But that’s not to say it’s built for Top 40. Sleigh Bells’ music is harsher than anything you’ll hear on the radio. Only one song — the shuffling acoustic ballad “Rill Rill’’ — sounds like it would consider playing nice with other records. Even Krauss’s most whispered vocals distort in the mix. It’s so saturated that when the most overblown beats hit, they make dents in the volume of everything else on the track.

As an audio engineering assignment, Miller’s tracks would probably flunk out of school. But Miller has made an art out of the slash-and-burn approach. And though it would be easy to assume the noise generated in the foreground covers up a lack of substance, Sleigh Bells’ pervasive hooks, harmonies, and measured rhythms confirm a clear method to the madness.

“I really admire music that doesn’t come off as cerebral or intellectual,’’ says Miller. “I think it’s kind of gutsy.’’

“ ‘Seven Nation Army’ by the White Stripes comes to mind,’’ he continues. “It has a particularly great riff that’s so good that it doesn’t need anything else. I think that’s a huge challenge to be that simple and that interesting. I think it’s fair to say that’s a huge influence. God, maybe even a model for it. ’’

That attitude runs counter to his old band, the caffeine-frenzied emo-hardcore group Poison the Well, which Miller left in 2004. Burnt out on the hyper-fast style, Miller moved back home to Florida to begin work on a new project. After a few fruitless moves between there and the West Coast, 2008 brought him to New York.

Krauss, meanwhile, had also moved beyond early ventures as a member of the short-lived girl group RubyBlue and later gigs as a session singer and vocal coach. She was working as a fourth-grade teacher in the Bronx when the two met at the restaurant where Miller worked. Miller was waiting on Alexis and her mother one night in 2008 and, as had become his habit, he pitched his project to her as soon as her mom mentioned she could sing.

“Derek’s music was unlike anything I had heard,’’ says Krauss, a New Jersey native. “I really loved how raw and gritty the sound was. The juxtaposition of harsh and sweet was immediately appealing.’’

“My prior experience in the music business left me pretty disillusioned,’’ says Krauss. “But Sleigh Bells has happened extremely organically. Derek and I have complete creative control, and if we don’t like something it doesn’t happen.’’

They locked everyone out of the studio for the record and turned down a deal with Interscope. Live, they’re still using Miller’s iPod for all their backing tracks, and they tend to treat their shows more like private dance parties run off their own mp3 playlists than rock spectacles, requiring audience reciprocation.

“People have to come to have a good time or it’s going to fall flat,’’ he says. “We’ve talked about how amazing it would be if people just didn’t even look at us and just danced and had fun and then went home with someone.’’ Sounds simple enough.

Link to original article at here.