Sleigh Bells and Cults: The Indie Pop Left-Behinds

Mat Hayward/Getty Images Singer Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells

Let’s take a trip back to 2001. You’re at a party and, after a few drinks, you work up the courage to talk to that attractive and approachable man or woman you’ve been eyeing for the past hour or so. As these things typically turn out, you start discussing what music you’re into and they tell you, “I’m into indie rock, I guess. Bands like Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, the Flaming Lips … ” There are two ways this can play out. Either you can understand what this person is trying to convey — they like guitar-based bands that are album-oriented, born of the indie rock firmament and more challenging and artful than the predominant radio-rock bands of the time, such as Staind or Nickelback. Or, you can point out that all three of those aforementioned bands were respectively signed to Warner Bros., Epic, and, once again, Warner Bros., and that this person needs to think harder about what “indie” really means to them.

Is that any way to live? I mean, it is a way to live and I should know, because 12 years ago that more or less described my lifestyle. I remembered this when the Twitter world reacted so strongly to Steven Hyden’s piece on how Chvrches, Haim, Icona Pop, and such represent the vanguard of “indie pop,” as if (a) he didn’t flat-out say “these bands are all on major labels,” and (b) this term hadn’t dubiously existed prior to 2013 or something. Divorce “indie” from “independent label” the way you know “gangsta rap” doesn’t have to be performed by people with criminal ties and the way you know “folk rock” can be made by dudes who get kicked out of Atlanta strip clubs and you’ll see “indie pop” for the very real marketing term it is — chart-aspiring, populist music rendered with an “indie” fashion sense and, typically, a band-like setup so it cannot possibly be confused with chart pop or any variation of Disney pop. If “indie pop” isn’t real, then neither is Nylon nor Urban Outfitters.

And we know it’s real because it has a past, present, and future. The previous month showed us what it is in 2013, and in the past two weeks, the latest albums from Sleigh Bells and Cults show us what it was and what it’s not anymore. The easiest way to know that Sleigh Bells and Cults’ time may have passed is that compared to the clarity and extroversion of 2013 indie pop, they sound like indie rock bands now.

It always feels icky to try to quantify “buzz” as a means of disparaging bands you anecdotally know are very popular among people who don’t pay their bills trying to quantify buzz. All the same, Bitter Rivals and Static have dropped and I can’t remember the titles of the singles let alone the singles themselves. But the problem isn’t so much that they’re disappointing or that they evidence seriously diminishing returns in a very short amount of time — they do. The more curious thing is that in the span of two years, one of indie pop’s bedrock principles appears to be irreversibly outmoded — that there was nothing wrong with melody as long as it was sonically warped to the point that it was clearly something else.

Though they dovetail sharply in their process, both relied on two of the primary tools of rock bands — reverb and distortion — to establish a replicable template that even had a couple of people truly believing in Tennis as a next big thing. Both are coed duos that created an air of mystery about their relationship status (Sleigh Bells are not a couple, Cults were) and are associated with New York City despite having roots in Florida and San Diego, two of America’s most cred-deficient locales. They also debuted with a blog-crushing, aesthetic-defining song (“Crown on the Ground” and “Go Outside,” respectively) and capitalized with a debut album that gave you a proper ratio of hits-to-deep-cuts and clocked out in less than 35 minutes before you could get tired of them by your own hand; which is to say, before you would get tired of hearing them on satellite radio, commercials, and the few remaining places where you’re a captive audience.

Let’s start with Sleigh Bells’ 2010 debut, Treats, which still sounds like absolutely nothing else, to the point where every five years, you’ll revisit it thinking it’s the most fresh music imaginable. And it did so by not really inventing anything new as much as finding complementary parts both visually and sonically: a sneering mute in sunglasses and leather jackets playing pointy guitar riffs not too far off from those he played in post-hardcore band Poison the Well; an amped-up former teacher leading pep rally chants; all set to bleacher-stomping beats. It adhered to a pleasure-stoking “just the good parts” approach to music, or at least a reimagining of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video in which the anarchist cheerleaders actually ruled the school. It was Jock Jams for people who cut gym class and also a critical smart bomb, unifying hair metal contrarians, poptimists, and generally anyone who felt like, say, the National was everything wrong with indie rock (these groups have serious overlap).

But as with other debuts from similarly “this is just what we needed” acts like the Strokes, Interpol, Andrew W.K., and the xx, Treats wasn’t a perfect album, but rather a perfection of an aesthetic, to the point that a second album instantly threatens to be redundant. Which is exactly what happened on last year’s Reign of Terror, which, like Room on Fire, Antics, The Wolf, and Coexist, gave you slightly polished “more of the same” — enough to hold you over, but not enough to make you think these guys were going to somehow improve on the formula.

The third album is typically never a recovery, and Bitter Rivals doesn’t change that. But usually these records take years to complete, filled with difficult studio sessions and a general malaise from an audience that has likely moved on. Sleigh Bells simply sped up the process — the time between the announcement of Bitter Rivals and its release lasted barely more than a month, and you get the sense that Sleigh Bells knew something we didn’t about their working relationship. In the short period of time between Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals, Sleigh Bells did what bands that are running out of ideas almost always do — let the other member start writing the songs. The funny thing about Sleigh Bells is how the ratio of attention given to Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller was inversely proportional to what each actually did in the studio. Somewhere in the middle of Lindsay Zoladz’s downbeat review of Bitter Rivals at Pitchfork, she points out a pretty damn important fact about the constitution of Sleigh Bells: “Miller handled the lyrics, music, and production on the previous records, but on Bitter Rivals Krauss wrote most of the melodies.” Just the lyrics, music, production, and melodies?

Both jumbled and listless, Bitter Rivals is one of those records that makes things pretty easy for critics or at least people who are looking to cut bait with Sleigh Bells, in that each song can be described as “they tried this new thing — it didn’t work” or “they did this before, but better.” But it’s also the last thing a Sleigh Bells album should allow itself to be, which is boring.

This is a precipitous fall for a duo that only two years ago was cast as themselves in a major motion picture as the most badass band in the world. I’m willing to hold out the possibility that you have not seen Premium Rush, so let me break it down. The premise of the movie is that “bike messenger” is the most badass profession in New York City; yeah, the pay’s not great and you’re putting yourself at the mercy of NYC motorists without anything remotely resembling proper health care, but dude … they’re a tight-knit, extraordinarily good-looking crew that adhere to their own moral code.

Halfway through the movie, we get a flashback to a packed bar where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, a law-school dropout who is strictly old-school about his delivery methods, is about to close the deal with the romantic lead. It’s some kind of fund-raiser for the bike messenger community and they’re having a supremely badass time. And to underline this point, the ringleader of this particular event — vaguely Samoan, gauge earrings — wants the crowd to “give it up for Sleigh Bells!” At which point you maybe see half of Miller’s torso as he walks off the stage. That’s it. How badass is that?

It’ll almost certainly be the last time Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller themselves will appear in an actual film, but Treats has been in approximately 2,563,543 trailers/commercials and counting — I’ve been to movies where at least two of the previews use two different songs from that record. Bitter Rivals strikes while the iron is still hot, and who knows if one of these songs will have a second life attempting to sell us a sporty SUV. And in a weird way, Bitter Rivals does exactly what it needs to. Lord knows how many commercial agents and music supervisors want Sleigh Bells songs that aren’t Sleigh Bells, and the intro of “Riot Rhythm” doesn’t come cheap. The only good thing I can say about Bitter Rivals is that if you’re going to commission off-brand Sleigh Bells imitations, you might as well go directly to the source.

Befitting its name, Cults operate on a smaller scale, but it checked off every single box on the “this year’s Sleigh Bells!” to-do list in 2011. If you want to remember the farm-to-table “indie pop” process from 2010 to 2011 as accurately as possible, read up on Cults — there was the protracted anonymity and the single that seemed to be an inside operative decrying Internet culture (“Go Outside”) while being propped up by indoor kids. The self-titled, three-song EP was then released on Forest Family, the label founded by Chris Cantalini, a Sirius radio programmer (and former Sony talent scout) whose Gorilla vs. Bear blog, often considered the epicenter for chillwave, played as much of a role in defining the sonic and visual aesthetic of the time as any musician.

Like Treats, Cults gave you the “hits” (“Abducted,” “Go Outside”), a jangly, midtempo outlier that ended up being the best song (“Oh My God”), and nothing that could really be considered a dud. Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion’s look was far more cuddly and Californian than that of Sleigh Bells and their pop references more parental — Motown, girl group, folk-rock. But it avoided being on some She & Him shit by means of a modernist hip-hop production style that couldn’t really be doubted — they name-dropped Enter the Wiu-Tang (36 Chambers) as a major influence, and the dusted, distorted production stuck to it. They’d later collaborate with bullshit-averse Freddie Gibbs and get sampled by bullshit-magnet J. Cole.

It’s hard to tell whether in shying away from the audience it’s capable of drawing on Static or being stubborn, but it appears that Cults thinks the production was the most interesting thing about its debut. Like Bitter Rivals, there are “experiments” and songs that kinda remind you of its older, better material, but they’re absolutely buried under the very thing its title promises. Static obscures by intent — its production comes courtesy of Shane Stoneback (who, appropriately enough, engineered Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals) and also Ben H. Allen, the former Bad Boy responsible for Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse and the last two Washed Out and Animal Collective LPs — ultra-saturated, bottom-heavy indie records that often sound like they were recorded in a water bong.

If you’re generous, Static is promising — what else could you expect from a record inspired equally by breakups and bath salts? Cults may have lost its cool because it lost its mind. Which makes its trajectory more potentially interesting than that of Sleigh Bells — though you do worry it may take the “indie band on a major label” route trod by 2008’s “indie pop” template MGMT, wherein it forgets that it’s much better at being tuneful than it is at being weird.

People who loathe the term “indie pop” would argue that the obsolescence of Sleigh Bells and Cults in favor of cleaner, closer-to-the-source stuff represents progress. But if nothing else, it reminds us that’s an advance best acknowledged rather than judged in real time; and if people are concerned that the new stuff sounds a little too perfect from the jump, well … they have history to back them up, don’t they? Do you think about what Chvrches’ next album might sound like and whether it can improve? Would you be OK with Days Are Even More Gone? That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable in the present, it maybe just stresses that “indie pop” is subject to the same assumed disposability of the real thing.

Filed Under: Music, New Music