Sleigh Bells: Kid Kruschev
Sleigh Bells are in a dark place these days, and who can blame them? The electroclash mélange of their first two records—2010’s Treats and 2012’s Reign of Terror—emerged during a period of comparatively little ambient stress, but in 2017, like everyone, the New York duo is feeling the weight of the world around them. While their early work tended to use lyrics as texturing tools, splicing in the words that sounded the best and brashest, they have since adopted a narrative thrust in their songs. The band’s newest release, the mini-album Kid Kruschev, offers perhaps the most thematic cohesion of any of their albums so far. After last year’s scattershot Jessica Rabbit, it feels like Sleigh Bells have narrowed in on the stories they want to tell and the leanest way to tell them.
They still write lyrics with the winking flair that made early tracks like “Infinity Guitars” and “Rill Rill” addictive. Singer Alexis Krauss rhymes “gasoline” with “trampoline” within the first two minutes of opener “Blue Trash Mattress Fire,” but her vocals do more here than counterbalance guitarist and producer Derek Miller’s thrashing power chords and overdriven drum machines. She elongates her phrases throughout Kid Kruschev, letting the instrumentation follow the push of her voice rather than trailing Miller’s jarring tempo changes. Sleigh Bells have slowly cultivated that change in dynamic over the past few years, as Krauss began to belt more instead of lingering in her head, but by now it’s fully bloomed. She directs this show, and the space she occupies helps the lyrics stick.
Kid Kruschev takes its name from the post-Stalin Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, which is only the most superficial indication of what’s stirring inside this seven-track collection. After all, it’s hard not to hear the word “Russia” on a daily basis even if you only absorb the news peripherally, and the Cuban Missile Crisis lurks as an oblique historical precedent to the nuclear tensions of our own era. Sleigh Bells don’t delve into the specifics of their record’s sociopolitical contexts, but they allude to them: Krauss works the colors red, white, and blue into the agitated “Blue Trash Mattress Fire,” and on the more grounded, tuneful “Panic Drills,” she sings, “At the end of the war/What’s mine is yours.” The couplet could describe a nasty fight with a loved one, or it could point to a couple sharing resources in the post-nuclear hellscape—there’s a narrative thread running through the song, but it’s loose enough to wrap around fear on either an interpersonal or a global scale.
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Most of the songs on the record appear to operate on both scales at once. On “Show Me the Door,” Krauss sings, “You made it this far/Just a little bit more/Before we show you the door,” simultaneously as an encouragement and a threat. Her voice is high and clear at the chorus, but during the verses she’s echoed by a copy of her voice pitched down into a demonic range. Miller, for his part, reins in the guitars in favor of reverbed bass, synthesized vocal syllables, and incongruously cheery disco keys, playing up the song’s internal contradictions. Sleigh Bells rode for a while on the contrast between Miller’s hardcore-trained guitar playing and Krauss’s clean soprano, but by this point they have to dig up more subtle incongruities, scraping together sounds that don’t quite fit and leveraging them toward a broader sense of disquiet.
The song that lingers the longest off Kid Kruschev, though, is also its most internally cohesive. “And Saints” punctuates the record with a more or less straight narrative: Everyone is worried about Krauss; even the delivery guy who comes to her door wants to know if she’s OK. She’s not, for the record. “I swear I’m the shell of a man,” she sings at the chorus, but at least she’s got someone in there with her to contradict her: “You said, ‘Nah, you’re a hell of a man.’” She cruises on a vocal melody that’s lovely in its simplicity while Miller accompanies her with little more than a single strobing synth. The frenetic pulses and tantrums that made Sleigh Bells songs instantly recognizable ebb away, leaving a surprising tenderness in their wake. When they push aside their usual bag of tricks, Krauss and Miller have it in them to write direct and disarming pop songs, the kind that reach out to comfort you in your helplessness. These longtime adherents to the school of “everything louder” have finally found their quiet place.