December 17th, 2010 11:24am
Wait, Did I Forget My Sunglasses?
The basic high concept behind Sleigh Bells is bold, exciting, and strangely, something that hasn’t really been done before: Extremely catchy hardcore/metal riffs dropped over crunk beats and topped off with airy bubblegum vocals that contrast a cool femininity with the macho, amped-up quality of the music. Like a lot of the best ideas in pop, it’s a triumph of simplicity and novelty, and the appeal is immediate and intuitive.
That collision of familiar styles is not the only big idea on Treats, though. What really pushes the music over the top is the way it is recorded and mastered to convey an impossible loudness by deliberately narrowing its dynamic range to the point of clipping the sound even at moderate volumes. I am fairly certain that Treats is the first album to fetishize the negative consequences of the Loudness War. It’s not simply designed to sound good on bad headphones, car stereos, and computer speakers; it’s made to emulate the way overly hot recordings sound on those devices when you turn them all the way up, and to tap into our positive connection to that distortion because we only turned the music up so high because we liked it.
To some extent, it’s a meta conceit not unlike the way lo-fi and chillwave artists present their songs with a deliberate patina of age and grit intended evoke the aesthetics of recording and playback devices of the past. The obvious difference is that Treats is not concerned with the past, but rather how we experience music in the present. It plays on memories of interacting with music that are so fresh we’ve only begun to process them. It’s rather like how Phil Spector devised his famous “wall of sound” style by tailoring the arrangements and recordings to sound good on transistor radio. They found a way to not only take advantage of the limitations of the devices on which the songs would be heard, but to make something beautiful and exciting out of technical flaws and the misguided, market-driven impulse to master music at a ridiculous volume.
The important thing to stress is that this clever angle isn’t used as a distancing device, and it’s not some purely intellectual aesthetic. It’s mostly just the answer to the question “How can we take these awesome songs and make them even more awesome?” When the sound of it gets intense, when the loudest bits clip to the point of abstraction, the effect is purely physical. On a conscious level we recognize this as the sound of the music getting too loud and coming out “wrong,” but mostly you’re just hit by noise, and the way it vibrates through your body and around the room. It’s a record that forces you to be aware of your response to it. It’s a celebration of loudness, of loving something so much that you don’t mind damaging your hearing a bit, of the way it feels to be physically overwhelmed by sound.
In this Sleigh Bells record, I hear a blueprint for rock music going into the next decade. It’s a new way of being loud and aggressive and powerful that doesn’t throw out the raw essentials of rock so much as it reconfigures them for the era we are in. I really hope other musicians out there recognize this, and do what they can to put their own spin on these basic ideas.
Buy it from Amazon.