The visual contrast of the two ladies sitting across from me, at 7 a.m. in Terminal C of Nashville International Airport, couldn't be more stark. On the left, a blonde in her early 30s wearing all black, looking like she's ready for the club at 7 on a Tuesday morning, sipping Starbucks and poring over spreadsheets. On the right, in flowing white robes, sits a nun, reading her annotated Bible in a black leather case, rosary dangling, rapt in her study of scripture. Maybe it's the sleep deprivation — the butt-crack of dawn is not a typical part of this music critic's life — or maybe I've finally, painlessly, lost what little of my mind is left, but this seems like the perfect embodiment of the beautiful cognitive dissonance that makes Brooklyn electro-thrash party duo Sleigh Bells so appealing.
On one hand you have the vocals of singer Alexis Krauss — the nun in this particular analogy — pristine and bright, chiming and chirping without getting into the condescending indie-coo that's been ruining otherwise interesting music for the last few years. (I blame Zooey Deschanel, but that's a topic for another day.) Like a buoy in a monster storm, Krauss' vocals bounce up and down, side to side, as the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fans on all sides, but at no point do they ever tip over, or get lost in the foam, so to speak. All playground chants and childlike whimsy, Krauss' singing is the relative calm at the eye of an otherwise chaotic technological maelstrom — not unlike, say, the traditions of Catholicism in the 21st century. Or a nun sitting in the middle of a gleaming modern airport reading a book that was written 2,000 years ago.
(The nun is fiddling with her smart phone — I know I haven't been to mass in a long time, but when did nuns start carrying smart-phones? And why is hers nicer than mine?)
On the other hand, you have the cacophonous, preposterously outsized tracks over which Krauss sings, courtesy of former Poison the Well guitarist (don't hold that against him) Derek E. Miller — in this increasingly overstretched analogy, the young lady bedecked head to toe in black, the glitter on her face catching the early morning sunlight like some gothic disco ball, brooding but shiny and brilliant. Miller's cochlea-exploding array of overblown beats, shred-happy super-fuzzed guitars and sparkling synths form the bedrock of Sleigh Bells debut Treats. A fist-pumping party record from the word go, Treats manages to combine beat-the-beat-style mainstream pop electronica with its goat-throwing, power-chord loving, hard-rocking hesher cousins to create an album somewhere between Andrew W.K. and Lisa Loeb, or what might have happened if Ministry's Al Jourgensen had spent the late '90s worshipping at the twee altar of Beat Happening. It's a weird record that can only be described as aggressively accessible.
Sometimes with an album like Treats — an album that just seems to walk out of the desert with an entire nation following behind like an army in tight pants and Chuck Taylors — it's tough to get past the over-hype. It's tough to not be completely and totally suspicious of all the sudden exposure and the overflowing praise from all the corners of the indie echo chamber. What's even tougher, though, is getting the damn riff to lead single "Tell 'Em" out of your head. Tougher still is trying not to dance like a toddler with a beer-helmet full of Jolt Cola every time that riff pulses through your mental circuitry. And just try falling to sleep with the "ah-ah-ah-ah" hook to "Run the Heart" camped out in your dome — it might be a dreamy song, but it'll put you in an insomnia-inducing infinite loop. And even though the "ah-ah-ah-ah" finally gives way to sleep, it'll be waiting for you to wake up.
(In a hypothesis-destroying turn of events, Ms. Night at the Roxbury spends the entire flight reading The Rest of The Gospel: When The Partial Gospel Has Worn You Out. Between Cyber-Nun and The Glittery Evangelical, I no longer know what to expect — except that maybe one will turn into a pillar of smoke and the other will spout nonsense about light and cork. Either way, I'm not getting any answers.)
Listening to Sleigh Bells — be it on headphones at 7 in the morning, in your car on the way to the grocery store or, say, all by yourself in a dark room waiting for sweet merciful sleep to conquer the ah-ah-ah-ahs — is nothing short of mind-melting. It's what I imagine it might feel like to huff Dust-Off from a Mylar balloon then stick your head in the bass speakers at Bridgestone Arena — ears blown out, skull shattering from the inside, and the whole world going wubba-wubba-wubba as your brain melts into one big puddle of keyboard-cleaning confusion. But when confusion is this much fun it's hard to see how there was ever any appeal in making sense to begin with.