Seven hours. In order to meet (and eventually exceed) my listening quota, I listened to Sleigh Bells’ debut album Treats for a little over seven hours today. After these approximately fourteen listens, I am filled with few needs and many wants. I want to rent out musical halls and destroy their PAs with this album. I want to see if this album can literally raise the dead. I think it can. I want this album to take my hearing because it’s the last thing I want to hear before I die and I don’t want to die yet. Sleigh Bells’ debut album is so roundly and thoroughly successful that it’s difficult even to talk about.
The first thing you should know is that the album is loud. It’s won the so-called loudness wars so convincingly that it seems a little uncouth to ever mention the word “quiet” again—quiet has been soundly defeated and its heart is cooling on a coroner’s scale. Treats sounds like music made to piss off your parents, if you lived with your parents. And in these economic times, you might, so there you go. Put another way, much of the album is like the chorus of “Debaser” and “La La Love You” mashed together (and all the mixing board’s knobs set to “Fuck You”). It’s a contemporary update to the Loveless formula: indiscernible lyrics + a wall of guitar sound = Awesome. In some ways it’s hard not to namecheck bands because what Sleigh Bells has done is to succeed where so many other bands try and fail. They’re Ratatat if the guys could put down the Nintendo controllers and go get girlfriends. They’re Marnie Stern with mass appeal. They’re Merzbow with a sense of (or concern for) fucking melody. And even though it sounds like an insult, I’m tempted to say that they’re Jock Jams for the kickball set. (It’s not an insult, but they really do.)
The first eight bars of the album are a litmus test: A rat-a-tat-tat blast of programmed drums, handclaps, and a guitar that sounds less like a buzzsaw than some sort of insanely scary futuristic saw they haven’t even invented yet. Guitiarist and (for lack of better term) beatmaker Derek Miller creates directed chaos for the better part of a minute before Sleigh Bells’ singer Alexis Krauss starts to sing about boys and girls these days. I’m not going to lie to you: After listening to this album in the background, at the gym, in the office, at home, on $200 headphones, and on stock iPod earbuds I have to admit I have little idea what most of the lyrics are about. The next song, “Kids,” sounds like an updated version of “Crown On The Ground,” and its lyrics seem to entertain the idea of going to the beach. The song rides in on a treble -drum sequence until—following a familiar-yet-never-boring formula—massive drum patches loom and threaten to engulf us all. Rather than featuring a chorus, the song is structured around brief interludes of (relative) quiet. It’s a unique dynamic—the obvious but little-used converse of the Pixies loud-quiet-loud blueprint.
“Riot Rhythm” starts off with a kind of humorous drum fill, and then that laserbeam guitar comes in. The song title is perfectly descriptive. My hips are trying to secede from my torso and my ass is leading a revolution on the dancefloor. It’s hardly a shame that these first three songs set up an aural template that the band rarely deviates from. Who would have thought that such an unrelenting sonic beatdown would cause such bliss? (Besides Kevin Shields, I guess.)
Sleigh Bells built up a low-level frenzy based on the strength of its seven-track demo. More than half of those songs appear on the album. “Infinity Guitars” sounds like a fascimile of the demo version until about 1:52, at which point there’s a squeal of feedback and the guitar sound goes from dime store distortion to Marshall Shred Master. Of course, the rhetorical effect wouldn’t be very whelming if the drums didn’t at the same time bottom out and become cavernous. The new finish adds a big psychological hook where one was lacking. I’ve listened head-to-head and back-to-back more times than I’d want to admit to the demo version of “Crown on the Ground” and the album version of “Crown on the Ground.” There’s almost no difference. The album version—like most of the album—has slightly deeper, echo-y drums. The guitar track sounds very slightly doubled or out of phase on the album version. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same, which is like saying the cure for cancer I found in Paraguay is almost exactly the same as the one I found in Uruguay. The album version “A/B Machines” is also a near facsimile of the demo’s. It’s mixed a little quieter, but it’s basically the same—and unspectacular. That it’s one of the few songs with comprehensible lyrics is a major liability since those lyrics are, in totality, “Got my A machines on the table. Got my B machines in the drawer.” It’s not a bad song, but it’s a little dull set against the rest of the album.
“Rill Rill” is another carryover from the demo, a new version of “Ring Ring.” Like the other updates, it’s more a difference of degree rather than of kind. The song begins with the familiar three beats, but the opening also includes a church bell patch (which sounds like it comes from GarageBand) that mirrors the chord progression of the Funkadelic sample. The song also features a deeper drum sound and a mellow, trippy bit toward the end that’s another variation on the melody. The song completes a minor triptych of (relatively) tender songs that comprise Treats’ middle section. Both “Run The Heart” and “Rachel” are fairly tender love songs that show that even a note tied to a brick smashing through your window can show a little emotional depth. The album concludes with the title track, which somehow combines “slow burning” and “banger,” a seemingly monstrous amalgam, into a tidy package. Syncopated bunkerbusting beats drop between over-serious guitar riffs and synthesizer freakouts. I, as usual, have no idea what Krauss is singing about, but it sounds sublime.
Treats seems like an important album, despite itself. If you consider some previous important albums—Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, You Forget It In People—they seemed, if not aware of their importance, than at least somewhat stolid and composed. It was as if they were conceived as a coronation. Sleigh Bells’ debut is important for two related reasons and spontaneity underlies them both. First, the album kind of sounds like it was made in one day, but its makers were of such a singleminded vitality and brazenness that they were able to record instantaneous impulse and the raw power of youth. It sounds like it was made in a dorm or a tiny studio apartment, the walls covered in egg cartons. Second, the fact that the album didn’t leak, a fate that has seemed impossible for the last few years, just adds to its mystique. Somber men and women across the country were bored of Merriweather Post Pavillion by the beginning of 2009. Many had damned the Hold Steady’s latest album a month before it was released. On 11 May 2010, the entire Internet had one day to evaluate Sleigh Bells’ finished album. It seemed like a watershed moment. An instantaneous, omnipresent listening party. For once, both the means of production and the means of evaluation were truly in the hands of the people: Get a MacBook and a guitar, find a singer and make some beats—voila. Then one morning, everyone can download your album on iTunes and talk about it together on the Internet. A lot of normal people may be inclined to play Sleigh Bells in the general direction of holed-up dictators or angry crowds—looking to disperse them. But through its unmitigated expression of sonic excess, Treats looks to do the very opposite to the right sort of listeners.