Sleigh Bells don’t seem as interested in destroying eardrums as much they are creating earworms on their third (third!) album, Bitter Rivals. Guitar is still very much front and center throughout the record, but the band seems intent on following its pop instincts, even if means sacrificing it’s speaker-destroying fuzz beginnings.
It’s not always a bad look. The album’s best songs, “Sugarcane” and “You Don’t Get Me Twice,” show that Derek Miller’s guitar and production work are capable of much more than bludgeoning: the former is all riot-girl bombast, while the second is a more cloudy (almost swirling) put-off. Elsewhere “Sing Like a Wire” stands out for being a blast of popped-out hardcore in light with the band’s early material.
Singer Alexis Krauss does a good job of keeping her somewhat limited voice interesting. She shifts from sexed-up cooing (“24,” the title track “Bitter Rivals”) to scream-punk kiss-off (Minnie”) to even some embarrassing faux Chuck D rapping (“Bitter Rivals” again) without ever sounding like she’s play adopting at one type. Her willingness to keep her vocals flexible gives the album some much-needed excitement.
Bitter Rivals fails when it reaches for the pop middle. Too much of the album plays like Sleigh Bells reaching for their piece of the same girl-pop pie that groups like CHVRCHES and Charlie XCX have been going for in 2013. “24” almost completely abandons any pretense of the band’s previous work in favor of medium dream-pop.
Tracks like “Young Legends” and “To Hell With You” sound like something one might hear on Disney radio, which is not really the look you want for the same band capable of making “Crown on the Ground.” While the band’s fuck-all spirit is intact in spots, much of the record confuses “maturity” with “slowing down.”
Bitter Rivals is the work of a band trying to figure out what it wants to be and where it wants to put its stakes. It makes enough smart decisions to wonder what they’ll do next (or at least which songs will appear in movie trailers).