Sleigh Bells at the Detroit Bar Last Night

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Rebecca Aranda/OC Weekly
Sleigh Bells

Repeater, Sundelles, Pictureplane, Sleigh Bells
October 19, 2010
Detroit Bar

The Hype: A couple years ago, a kindergarten teacher named Alexis Krauss went to a restaurant with her mother. Their waiter told them that he was working on a music project, and was looking for a singer. Alexis volunteered. She had been in a pop group called Rubyblue around the new millenium, and the waiter was Derek Miller, former guitarist for Poison the Well. The pair immediately quit their day jobs and signed up for a MySpace band account under the name Sleigh Bells. 

In 2009, they quickly garnered critical attention based solely on the addictive tracks they put up on their MySpace, making it onto quite a few music lists without ever having a proper album. When they finally released their debut Treats this year, it immediately shot to the charts. It's the DIY dream come true.

And yet, there's nothing new in Sleigh Bells' sound. It's an indulgence in things that will always work: pop hooks, dirty guitars, well-worn beats, and a good amount of samples. Last night's line-up in particular begged the question: Once you've found something good, how much do you have to mess with it before it becomes yours?

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Rebecca Aranda/OC Weekly
Sleigh Bells

The Show: As Jean-Luc Godard once said, "It's not where you take things from--it's where you take them to." All new music has, out of necessity, become a hodge-podge of established musical tropes. No one can be 100 percent original, but when musicians start appropriating other pieces, at what point does the reference become theft? 

It's clever to nod at those that came before you, like Frank Black paying homage to country songwriters in his solo album Honeycomb, or Jeffrey Lewis making a song called "Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song." And the practice of sampling has become fully acceptable; listening to Biz Markie's "Alone Again" is such a different experience than listening to Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again," and it's hard to believe that the latter artist would sue Biz for sampling a small part of his piano.

But copy too much, and it's intolerable (see e.g., the tragic tale of "Ice Ice Baby").

The opening bands last night offered some insight into the copy/paste/alter routine. The first band, Repeater, played indie rock in the exact vein as Interpol (a band which, when it first came out, was often called the poor man's Joy Division). The lead singer had the same thin, nasal voice; the drums rode the hi-hat, the guitars chugged along predictably. The Gallant to their Goofus was the Sundelles, who took the familiar indie-rock recipe, spiced it with some predictable seasonings (Oh word? You wanna get high and kiss the coast? Where have we heard that before...) but played it so tenderly, it was like Water for Chocolate, all gettin into a simple burrito or lentil soup. Even though we've been hearing the elements in the Sundelles' music for the past several years, it was inspired where Repeater could only uh, repeat.

Then there was Pictureplane. Despite his lazer show and mix of surefire crowdpleasers--'90s house/dance music, tame R&B vocals, chopped-up beats--something was off. When the songs hit sweet spots, you couldn't be sure if you were attracted by Pictureplane or by a long-forgotten club jam, thrown into the mix mostly intact. And then he would sing over it. And then he'd mess with the beat. The result was unpleasantly bipolar, with 30-second manic spots of genuinely good dance music, followed by a minute of his soft singing laid over huge cuts of acid house. He might make a good DJ, but is he a musician? Is he legitimate?

The same question could be asked of our headlining group. Their demo "Ring Ring" was the best damn thing I heard last year. And then I listened to Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That," which is, basically, the song. That is the best damn thing. The sweet guitar, the popping beat, all of it was imported wholesale from the Funkadelic song; Sleigh Bells' addition was Alexis crooning "Have a heart!" and "Wonder whatcha boyfriend thinks about your braces."

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Rebecca Aranda/OC Weekly
Sleigh Bells

​By the time their album came out, "Ring Ring" had transformed into "Rill Rill," perhaps because the duo had realized how very little they contributed to this smash song. They ran their demo through a laborious production, ending up with echoing chimes and Alexis's voice transformed into a choir. (I personally prefer the demo to the album version, which seems over-produced in light of its original simple elegance.)

Unlike Pictureplane, Sleigh Bells knows when it's handling something good. They don't mess with it much, they just turn it up to 11. Everything is over-the-top, and it's this excess, this overzealous volume (terrifying the in-house sound technician), that sets them apart from the rest.

Derek thrashed, laying out a foundation with his heavy, thunking guitar for Alexis's airy voice and little screams. Their stage presence was made up of pop-star poses, club dancing, and hardcore flailing. This former kindergarten teacher was living the dream, diggin on the crowd with all the energy of Rihanna with a fraction of the singing power.

Even when it's easy to trace where these guys got their ideas from, their music sounds so fresh. All you need to captivate a crowd is a cute girl and a thick beat. Or, uh, a cute guy and a guitar run through many distortion pedals. Combine these simple elements, and you get something like your grandmother's mole; people have been eating this for years, but it still gets better every time you taste it.

Are these artists keeping the music of their predecessors alive through such gratuitous quoting? Or, since they never namecheck the artists, is it pure theft that goes unnoticed by naive new listeners? Maybe it's a trick to make the well-informed listener feel smart, and maybe it's the job of critics to point out the references. The musicians have no other responsibility other than to make something that sounds good. Sleigh Bells, no matter how much they're cribbing, sound good.

Critic's Bias: I once debated this exact question on a YouTube video for Justin Bieber's "Love Me," which cites the chorus for the Cardigans' "Lovefool." Yeah, I was arguing with tweens. In favor of Justin Bieber. Hopefully some adults can weigh in on the question of appropriation in the comments.

The Crowd: Very friendly, especially given that The Detroit Bar was at max capacity last night.

Overheard in the Crowd: "This next one is new, brand new," Pictureplane told the crowd as he cued up his next song. A guy behind me quipped, "No it's not, it's on your iPod."

Random notebook dump: Taco truck parked right outside, greeting those coming out with the smell of meat and cilantro. I don't know where this idea came from, but if more taco trucks are willing to park themselves outside of post-concert venues, I fully support more imitators.


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