ALBUM REVIEW: Sleigh Bells attempt a return to form on ‘Texis’

Sleigh Bells, TEXIS, Sleigh Bells TEXIS

After two albums from a quieter place, Sleigh Bells are trying to go back to what works for them.

Sleigh Bells
Mom + Pop Music, Sept. 10

“Here we go, here we go / You’re legitimate rock and roll,” vocalist Alexis Krauss sings on the first line of the album. It’s a little on the nose, but Sleigh Bells have never been accused of subtlety. The noise-pop duo, which includes producer-guitarist Derek Miller, clearly recorded new album Texis with an eye toward playing it loud. The resulting material will probably sound great onstage but still doesn’t come close to the excitement and freshness of 2010 debut Treats.

Sleigh Bells seemed to be struggling musically and emotionally on their last two outings, 2017’s Jessica Rabbit and 2018 EP Kid Kruschev. After consciously trying to sound different on those efforts, Miller later expressed frustration about the quality of his own songs on Jessica Rabbit. Some liked the band’s more nuanced direction, but it was its lowest-selling LP. On Texis, their fifth album, Sleigh Bells are ready to rock again.

The guitars are loud and crunchy, the drum machine is spitting out double-bass like a machine gun, and the choruses are nonsensical but singalong-ready. “SWEET75” starts the album off energetically with Krauss singing, “I’m a good time boy/ Here to heal the world.” That’s a tall order, but she sounds ready to try. The hip-hop beats that Miller loves to pair with his metal guitar riffs are as present and frenetic as ever here. “An Acre Lost” has not one but two great lyrical hooks: “Don’t kid yourself/ Don’t kid anyone else,” and, “If I should wake before I die/ Knock me out for heaven’s sake.” However, they’re wasted on a song that, after ramping up, never seems to go anywhere.

Sleigh Bells releases the two strongest songs as singles ahead of the album; “Locust Laced” and “Justine Go Genesis.” None of the songs on Texis have the laidback cool of “Rill Rill” or the cheer-stomp catchiness of “Infinity Guitars” from Treats, but one can definitely envision a crowd singing along with the chorus of “Locust Laced”–“I feel like dynamite/ I feel like dying tonight!” There’s even a fun surf-rock riff and some handclaps in there.

“Justine Go Genesis” is probably going to be great live, too. It starts with a trap beat and then layers on some frantic synths before bringing in Miller’s signature high-gain guitar shredding. The music on Texis is fully formed. To say that there’s a lot going on would be an understatement. But many of the lyrics sound like scratch lyrics that Krauss never got around to changing.

“I’m a cavity comedy girl/ The best night of your life/ I really wanna blow your mind/ But I haven’t got the time,” she sings. This kind of cocky, tossed-off assertion will likely work with the punk-queen stage presence she brings to Sleigh Bells’ live act, but it doesn’t have a lot of emotional heft on record.

The guitars go hard on “Tennessee Tips,” but what on earth does “Tennessee tips on a fucked-up night/ You look like crushed-up crystal lite” mean? The album is filled with these non-sequiturs and seems like a step backward from the more mature lyrics on Jessica Rabbit and Kid Kruschev (there’s nothing as real as “I swear I’m the shell of a man/ And you said, ‘Nah, you’re a hell of a man’” from Kid Kruschev’s “And Saints” on this record).

The album is mostly downhill from here, with style triumphing over substance. “Rosary” is an afterthought of a song with a haunted house-sounding organ intro and a very basic refrain of “I pray the rose.” Maybe Catholics will really dig it. “Red Flag Flies” is an ominous dirge about something very bad that requires the presence of firetrucks. “Who drowned all those dogs?/ Who shot all the pretty horses?” Krauss sings angrily, but soon she’s pronouncing it “so sad just so, so very sad” and the song is over. Every song on Texis clocks in at a tight three and a half minutes or less.

The heart of Sleigh Bells’ sound has always been the contrast of Miller’s churning guitars with Krauss’ sweet soprano, often multi-tracked to make her sound like a whole cheer squad rather than just one cheerleader. The metal-guy with the pop-girl idea works for the most part, but when it doesn’t, it sounds like Gwen Stefani fronting Slayer.

Miller is throwing more at the wall than ever. There’s the metal riffs, the trap beats, the syrupy ’80s synths—but when it’s all stacked on top of each other, it can be overwhelming rather than rewarding. When Sleigh Bells were indie darlings, much was made of how their sound was aggressively “in the red.” Miller has since acknowledged that back then, they were too broke for good equipment. Now that they can afford better gear, the music sounds almost too clean.

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