Treats was a game-changer. Sleigh Bells are the inflection point for the most exciting pop music of 2020. 100 gecs, Black Dresses, and the PC Music camp are still working from the blueprint that Sleigh Bells laid out on their debut album, released 10 years ago this weekend. “Anthems,” from Charli XCX’s just-released album How I’m Feeling Now, would fit right in on Treats. Sleigh Bells matched the power of a viscerally catchy pop song with a bloody viscera all their own. Their mutation on pop music is relentless and brutal, a nonstop machine gun fire of hooks and distortion. What Sleigh Bells does sounds immediate, but to strike that balance is anything but simple.
The rise of Sleigh Bells is mythological. Derek Miller, who had previously played with the Florida hardcore shit-stirrers Poison The Well, moved to New York City with a mission. He wanted to find a vocalist that had the energy to match the chaotic beats that he was constructing. He found his counterpart in Alexis Krauss, who would regularly come into the restaurant where he waited tables at with her mom. She had a past life as part of a manufactured pop girl group, but at the time she was working as an elementary school teacher. Miller convinced her to check out the demos that he had been working on. They went to a nearby park and sat down on a bench and listened to them through some headphones.
There was no expectation that it would be anything other than an experiment. “I’d been doing some session singing at the time,” Krauss reflected in a Spin profile a couple years later. “So I was used to hearing tracks and thinking about how I could lend my voice to them. Derek’s music sounded like a really interesting challenge, but I wasn’t thinking he was somebody I wanted to develop a creative relationship with.” But they started working on songs together anyway, and soon enough they were the next big thing.
Sleigh Bells came up at the peak of the blog boom — which this site was naturally a part of — and our early Band To Watch feature on the duo came about because then-editor Amrit Singh happened to live in the same Williamsburg apartment building as Miller. He’d heard him working out the “Infinity Guitars” riff through the walls. “Out of context, without Alexis, it sounded barbaric,” Singh told me over email. After a few months of finessing, Miller handed a demo CD off to Singh’s mom in the laundry room. His mom made sure that he heard it, surreptitiously moving it to the top of the large pile of promotional material that Singh would receive daily. Singh reflected: “For the next few weeks of that summer, every few days mom would say, ‘Have you listened to Derek’s demo yet? I have a feeling about him!'”
The duo would wind up the talk of CMJ 2009. They had put out some demos on MySpace earlier that year, but they broke through because of that festival. Their live shows would become legend, an intoxicating blend of sloppy dynamics and cocky surety. They handed out an eye-popping CD-R: bright yellow and emblazoned with a blood-red scribble. There was still some fine-tuning to be done, but Sleigh Bells arrived almost fully-formed. They were, of course, polarizing. They made music that sounded intentionally combative, a slap in the face compared to a lot of the tasteful indie rock that was also coming out of the New York scene at the time. But despite, and probably because of, that aggression, they were quickly embraced by the music press and musicians alike. They linked up with M.I.A., who co-released their debut through her own label — they became a big sonic influence on her own /\/\/\Y/\, which would come out a few months after Treats. Sleigh Bells were the new It Kids, making music that was abrasive and catchy and commercially viable. They were hyped-up and faced a lot of online criticism for their sound. A perusal of the comments on early Stereogum posts about them reveal skepticism about their authenticity, their skill, their sincerity. That’s all melted away with time, but it certainly fueled the chatter around the band.
As a kid growing up in the Jersey suburbs at the time, I was far removed from the actual mechanizations of Sleigh Bells’ rise, but I sure felt the effects. When I listened to Sleigh Bells for the first time, my mind was blown. I became a full-blown Sleigh Bells evangelical, passing around mp3s over instant messenger and blasting their songs out of my car in the parking lot before school. I even, embarrassingly, tried to transcribe the lyrics to their songs on the songmeanings.com. My mind, which had at that point mostly been drawn to music that had a narrative hook and words that mattered, was desperate to find meanings in these songs that presented themselves as aggressive outbursts. But I soon learned to embrace the chaos, celebrate their unknowability. When I listen to Sleigh Bells, I feel invincible. They make me feel bigger than myself.
The feeling of elation I get when I listen to this album can’t be matched. It’s pure, unfiltered giddiness. I love every song on it deeply. From its opening blast-off, Treats is a deliriously messy and chromatic explosion of sound. “Tell ‘Em” is the perfect opener, a blown-up buzzsaw of skyward guitars and blasted-out beats. The lyrics are glorious nonsense, evoking parties that you’ll never be at and jokes you want to be a part of. “All the kids these days/ Do you really wanna be that way?” Krauss sings, channeling her inner schoolteacher goading into an aspirational mantra that wants to rip your fucking head off. Her cheerleader chants and syrupy vocals make these songs stick, provide them with a central humanity amidst all the fucked-up sounds. Krauss oozes cool, a charismatic leader that can match the energy these songs provide, feed off it and swallow dynamite.
“Crown On The Ground,” still their (ahem) crowning achievement, is just an absolute marvel of production: the constant in-the-red beats, a jock jam echoed through a massive wall of sound. It makes no sense that it’s as catchy as it is, but it grabs hold and never lets go. Krauss’ vocals are buried underneath layers and layers of noise, but her mumbly voice still manage to pump you up. “Rill Rill” is a perfect bit of pop ingenuity, a max-volume sample of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” elevated even higher with Krauss’ endless put-ons and takedowns. “Keep thinking about every straight face, yes/ Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces,” she taunts. “What about them? I’m all about them/ Six such straight A’s, cut ’em in the bathroom.” It makes absolutely no sense but it doesn’t have to.
Every song brings something new to the table. It’s wall-to-wall hits. “Kids” and “Straight A’s” are bratty excellence. Krauss plays off her schoolteacher persona, turns type-A perfection into blood splatter. “Run The Heart” and “Rachel” manage to sound like comforting blankets amid the explosions, and they hint at the muscly R&B that would serve as a jumping-off point for their later albums. “Riot Rhythm” and “Infinity Guitars” play off each other as scraggy militaristic stomps. The hypnotic simplicity of “A/B Machines” is masterful, an infectious dance of gummy hooks and fiery intensity. I’ve always especially loved closer “Treats,” the pinwheeling guitars and pitter-patter beat punctuated with screams that sound like bombs dropping. It almost sounds like relief after 30 minutes of pure assault, but really the song is its own package of unstoppable noise.
Oddly enough, Treats doesn’t even sound all that loud to me now. Half of what’s on the top of the Spotify charts is mixed louder than Treats. The loudness wars were still being waged in the days when Treats was made, but pop music has only gotten more and more deafening. As more music is at the mercy of a streaming service’s compression algorithm, or listened to through tinny phone speakers and shitty headphones, the hyper-compression of Treats feels almost prescient. The loudness ends up as just another tic in Sleigh Bells’ arsenal of techniques. What’s really enduring about Treats is the blunt force of these songs — their catchiness, their unbridled frustration, their explosive glee. It’s an exemplar of maximalist pop, an aspirational guidepost for artists who want to make their music the most that it can be.