Before Sleigh Bells became nearly ubiquitous in commercials and morphed into a favored buzz band for Coachella devotees, the noise-pop duo was rightly praised for its absolutely killer debut—Treats is full of sound and fury. Follow-up Reign Of Terror found guitarist/producer Derek Miller and singer Alexis Krauss flirting with a slightly spacier, more distant sound that wound up disappointingly muted. On Bitter Rivals, though, Sleigh Bells gets its groove back; the record doesn’t quite reach the heights of Treats, but scores a solid hit for a style that didn’t seem like it could sustain more than one album.
Instead of looking to radically change the Sleigh Bells template, on Bitter Rivals Miller and Krauss make progress in the way the group’s sound is put together. Miller’s production evolves, but where that meant several tracks’ worth of dreck on Reign Of Terror, here it entails a more-pronounced but better-deployed ’80s synth influence on tracks like “Young Legends.” His guitar work returns to a full-on assault, but with some unexpected acoustic twang on the title track. Krauss’ voice is as enticing as ever, with “Tiger Kit” pointing the way toward a singing style that’s both more complex than plain shouting and more organic than forced pseudo-R&B. Krauss’ lyrics still leave something to be desired, but they’ve never really been the band’s main selling point.
Sleigh Bells is simultaneously at its best (and for some, its most annoying) when it taps directly and forcefully into the very heightened emotions of high school. Treats’ success can be explained at least in part by the way it nails the adolescent feeling of limitless power—the album cover is literally adorned with preening cheerleaders. Bitter Rivals takes on something less fist-pump-worthy, but equally potent: overly intense relationships. Krauss opens “Sugarcane” by declaring someone’s “so so sleeping on the ground tonight,” and in “Love Sick,” she asks the object of her affection to let her cut in line.
That focus helps most of Bitter Rivals, anchoring the first two-thirds of the record. Those songs play with a seamless blend of the seething energy and playfulness of Treats and some of the softness of Reign Of Terror. But the last few tracks get a bit too hung up and peter out—contemplative isn’t a great look for Sleigh Bells. Thankfully, the raw defiance of “You Don’t Get Me Twice,” the album’s best track as well as its best treatment of adolescent relationships, suggests a better way forward: The band can stick around indefinitely, experimenting as much as Krauss and Miller want, so long as it keeps pumping up the volume.