Deconstructing

Deconstructing: Sleigh Bells

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd | March 6, 2012 - 12:48 pm

[Welcome to the second installment a new feature on Stereogum! Consider it an op-ed: In this space, we’ll issue spot, and we’ll argue. And so it’ll be like every other post, just more specifically engineered to engage you in the sort of commentary and criticism we’re seeing in the comment section these days. Every Tuesday we’ll turn to Julianne Escobedo Shepherd to frame an issue, and most decidedly to take a side. Julianne is the culture editor for AlterNet, and has served as the Executive Editor of FADER; additionally, she’s contributed to SPIN, Billboard, VIBE, New York Times, Interview, Pitchfork, and MTV Hive. She also blogs and Tumbls, just like you. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of Stereogum. But the views herein are worthy of dialogue and discourse and inspection, and to that end, we present you with DECONSTRUCTING. Last week, it was Grimes. Today, Julianne turns her attention to Sleigh Bells.]

Bubblegum pop and butt rock were never mutually exclusive, but two camps in the same Midwest mall utopia, the archetypal soundtracks to riding in fast cars in order to chill out in parking lots. Sleigh Bells, the metal/cheerleader duo that famously came together over a quintessential mom-embarrassment incident (Derek Miller was the struggling waiter-musician, Alexis Krauss’s mom offered her daughter’s vocal services) captures this mutual malaise as if they’ve been living it their whole lives on Reign Of Terror, their second album. The marriage of riffs, hardcore’s signature double bass hits (drum-machined, of course), and Krauss’s virgin suicides fantasia of a voice coheres the concept they promised on Treats (though I prefer the EBM/industrial leanings of that album). And it’s all very gender-binary — the airier and poppier Krauss’s voice gets as Miller’s deep rockstar dreams play out, the more fully it realizes itself. On “Born To Lose” and “Road To Hell,” when Krauss is doing her best Kim Deal and Miller, his Joey Santiago (I mean, those two are Pixies outtakes, right?), the dreamier it becomes. Miller’s discussed the personal trauma that led up to this album, hence the dramatic/metal-referencing song titles, but sonically, it reads like escapism, all glossy refrains and drum fills writ large. If it’s an album about pain, it’s also about mythologizing it — maybe to make more manageable or, you know, not-cliche. When I first saw their album cover — Krauss’s pristine white Keds sullied by drops of blood — I hated it, it seemed so obvious, the shoes symbolizing the innocence juxtaposed against the evil. Having listened to the album several times, though, it feels deeper than that, a mission statement that does not reduce their project to oppositional forces but the interaction between them.

Right now, there is a weird idea people are putting forth that, obviously, since it was a band that was formed rather than naturally occurred, it somehow must be illegitimate now, and the sophomore album is like, “OOH THE RUSE IS UP.” Nick Catucci puts it nicely in ArtInfo: “Sleigh Bells can be thought of as inauthentic for a number of reasons, depending on one’s fears and biases.” (He then lists them, and it’s worth reading the whole piece.) For instance, because Miller wrote every iota of Treats (and because Krauss was once in a teen-pop ensemble called Rubyblue), their manufactured elements supersede any enjoyment one might get from the music. It’s an interesting thought, considering the past few years that have seen even the most indie-rock stalwarts embracing their love of Katy Perry songs, but disdain for Sleigh Bells on the basis of their biography is a strange continuation of the old ways of thinking — pedestalizing the idea of the band in the garage, Dave Grohl style, even when the internet has supposedly obliterated the alt-vs-mainstream rubric.

And that’s precisely why Sleigh Bells is interesting — when the cheerleader chick and the stoner dude were never meant to be (or at least that’s what they told us in the movies), in this era, they can make beautiful music together, to get intentionally corny. Maybe they’re the logical end to a different-world narrative, Pretty In Pink style, and conceptually so awesome because Andi (Miller) ended up with Blaine (Krauss). Though I haven’t seen Sleigh Bells in a couple of years, Krauss’s stage presence always seemed forced to me, like she felt uncomfortable and awkward putting on the vampy headbanger steez but thought she had to because otherwise there’d be nothing else to look at. But in retrospect, it’s also the stance of a woman trying on another persona for size, expanding her perception of self, but not abnegating the bubblegum, average American white girl center of who she is. Miller’s got his own rockstar dreams, too, but live, he’s more of a vessel for Krauss (which I think maybe makes him a feminist?). Yet their chemistry is inextricable; only together can they chew the scene.