There are an amazing number of things that Sleigh Bells does right.
When it works properly, the team effort of one male and one female often garners mass appeal through the use of their exclusive strengths. With Sleigh Bells, the Brooklyn-based duo has a formula to do just that. Alexis Krauss’ breathy sweet vocals float over Derek Edward Miller’s heavy guitar. It’s a winning combination in part because both play well to sexual archetypes. Krauss is punk-rock sexy and Miller is loud and cocky.
To add to the appeal, the simplicity of their chemistry is most often distilled into 3-minute rock songs. Their set Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club was pretty short. They played for about 30 minutes and then tacked on an encore that came so quickly that some in the audience didn’t realize that it was in fact an encore. But Sleigh Bells is a band with two albums — and touring in support of their second album Reign of Terror — and each album has 11 songs where a 3-minute song could be a longer one.
Such is the case with the single “Comeback Kid,” which was served up with lights and leaping. Miller’s metallic guitar riffs rip through pretty much exactly 3 minutes of rapid machine gun sound while Krauss sings of, well, coming back, toughing it out, and dealing with it. The new material demonstrates some growth in a greater blend of guitar and vocal whereas their first album Treats kept the two a bit more separate, reeling from one to the other. Another great example of the evolution of their sound appears in “Demons,” presented during the show’s encore to great audience enthusiasm, where the thundering guitar from Miller plays right alongside rhythmic shouting from Kraus.
Despite the simplicity of the Sleigh Bells sound, I cannot help but see its evolution out of the New York scene. Great punk and post-punk bands in New York have given us terrific guitar players like Thurston Moore and Tom Verlaine. While I’m not saying that Miller as demonstrated anywhere near that level of talent, he’s certainly a distinctive and smart guitarist. Krauss’ ability to hit screaming highs while still maintaining sing-along appeal that recalls both Deborah Harry and Kim Gordon.
Together, Krauss and Miller have a punk dynamic that also is evident in their stage show. They filled out the sound a bit with the addition of second guitarist Jason Boyer, which made their sound louder and more muscular. But the appeal consistently stemmed from the men shredding their guitars and the lady singing sweetly to the melodies — the two halves forming an attractive whole. It’s a formula many synthpop duos figured out long ago with the silent synth guy and the pleasing female vocalist. (I always call this the Eurythmics model and it’s a surefire crowd pleaser when it works.) It’s cool to see the formula succeed with a rock band as well.
Detractors of Sleigh Bells say they have gotten too big too fast. They sold out the 9:30 Club in a blink and they are opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers later this spring. Bands that get that big that quickly can be both satisfying and mystifying at the same time. After all, Sleigh Bells doesn’t seem that sophisticated as a band. But their simplicity is beguiling and their fusion of sound to form somewhat ingenious. A third album should demonstrate if their formula can grow organically or if they run out of steam.
Openers Liturgy, a black metal band from Brooklyn, actually served as the perfect openers. The guitar duo offered the audience no lyrics, only several long guitar instrumentals that set the stage for a comparatively more complicated main act. While Liturgy wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea, they were perfectly entertaining and captured the attention of the audience as it filtered in to the club in a way that whetted the appetite for more guitar later in the evening.