Like Michael Bay or Coca-Cola, Sleigh Bells didn't need to change its formula. On its first two albums – both critics' favorites that led to lucrative placements in a Honda commercial and several movie trailers – this wily Brooklyn duo made a perfectly realized racket out of jagged jock-rock guitars, booming hip-hop beats and airy girl-group vocals. The music was simple but profound, the embodiment of an idea that felt as though it might keep playing out forever. (One instructive song title from the band's 2010 debut: "Infinity Guitars.")
Yet for "Bitter Rivals," the speedy follow-up to last year's "Reign of Terror," Sleigh Bells set about fixing what wasn't broken. Guitarist Derek Miller, who'd previously written all of the band's music, handed responsibility for the melodies to singer Alexis Krauss. And though it had dabbled before in (slightly) softer sounds, the group decided to more fully moderate its trademark intensity; there's even a bit of acoustic guitar floating in the space between Miller's electric jolts.
The description suggests a kind of watering-down – evidence, perhaps, of some undue crisis of confidence. But that's not what Sleigh Bells delivers on "Bitter Rivals," which even at its most restrained feels as headstrong as the band's early work.
Krauss's increased involvement seems crucial. Her newly expansive vocals widen the music without weakening it, especially in cuts like "To Hell with You" and "Young Legends," where she echoes the sleek assertions of turn-of-the-millennium R&B. It's gratifying too to hear her flex her melisma in "Sugarcane" and indulge in some breathy long tones in "Love Sick"; the songs summon a feeling of unfulfilled desire that before this Sleigh Bells had never tapped into.
Throughout the album, you get the sense that Krauss is doing stuff she's been waiting for years to try out, and that appears to have pushed Miller into fresh territory as well: the bluesy strumming (and barnyard animal calls) of "Tiger Kit," for instance, or the C+C Music Factory-style synths in "Sing Like a Wire." He still shreds here and there in his customary fashion; "24" begins with a fuzzy arpeggiated riff to the face before the song opens up into a very pretty dream-pop chorus. But "Bitter Rivals" shows that change can be energizing – even when it isn't necessary.
(Mom + Pop)
Two and a half stars