The pitchforks are out for Pitchfork.com, and it's all Saturday Night Live's fault.
Last weekend, the Brooklyn metal-pop duo Sleigh Bells played a pair of songs from their new album Reign of Terror on the show. The online response afterward wasn't quite as damning as the torrent of disapproval for Lana Del Rey's perceived poor showing, but here's what some people are thinking: The bar has been lowered for SNL's music spots, and the show's talent bookers are taking tips from indie-music tastemakers such at Pitchfork, resulting in a weekly parade of half-talents and disappointers.
It's been suggested that because the so-called major artists won't play SNL for peanuts – good for them, I say – SNL simply looks down a rung. It's also been said that the sound on SNL is subpar, and that Sleigh Bells (for example) are, in fact, better than they appeared to be at 30 Rockefeller Center. I can't speak to the first point. But to the second? Phooey on that.
Sleigh Bells relies on volume, style and shtick. The material of Reign of Terror, which is poppier but less interesting than its more assaulting and abrasive debut, Treats, is marked by programmed drums, the cutesy vocals of Alexis Krauss and the overdriven guitar belonging to Derek Miller. There's an admiration for girl groups such as the Go-Go's and the Shangri-Las. Cheezy, simplistic, metal barre chords are attractive to Miller – Poison is his poison.
That wall of Marshalls on SNL was for show. Miller plays noisily, but not bigly – and certainly not expertly. True Shred Guitar is the album's buzz-saw greeting, opening with a sweaty live snippet, crowd a-roaring. "Push it, push it!" urges Krauss, a big fat beat at her back. There's mention of an M-16 –Sleigh Bells fan M.I.A. must like that – and the guitar-as-an-assault-weapon-metaphor is crudely made. (If that isn't enough, the liner-note photos of militaristic paraphernalia run the mullet-headed conceit into the ground.)
Melodic? Not so much. Mind you, D.O.A. is hummable – like a down-tempo Zombie by the Cranberries.
Crush is one of a couple of tracks that rely on cheerleader shouts and claps. Miller, the lyricist, has fond memories of the well-off Catholic-school girls of his past: "With your hair in braids, your mother tips the maid, blindfolded nun." There's also mention of shotgun sprays. And "crush" is used as an oppressive verb as well as a romantic noun.
Yeah, the lyrics aren't cheery. Remember Mellencamp's ditty about suckin' down chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze? On the dreamy, blippy You Lost Me, Krauss candy-croons about a double suicide behind the Circle K.
Top track? Let's go with Comeback Kid. Snapping fingers, tripping electronic beats, a raw Cobain-ish guitar riff and Krauss's coo add up to a tight, crunchy piece of work.
Comeback Kid was one of two songs performed on SNL. Anyone who saw the broadcast and was underwhelmed by the segments that began with "Ladies and gentlemen: Sleigh Bells!" shouldn't bother with this record. What you saw is what you get with these guys. There's certainly an appeal, and they don't quite sound like anyone else. But it's niche market, one that I'm not sure SNL is aiming for.
Reign of Terror
- Sleigh Bells
- Mom + Pop
OTHER NEW RELEASES
The End of That
- Plants and Animals
- Secret City/EMI
- Three stars
The third album from Plants and Animals finds Warren C. Spicer and the Montreal classic-style rockers beat up a little – maybe lost, maybe dissatisfied, maybe more mature, definitely trying to rise up from a malaise. "2010 is over," announces Spicer on the crashing 2010, the year the band's strong La La Land was released, "Goodbye to the tears of that last year." Lyrically, Spicer is reacting to the trials that come with being a working musician (or artist of any sort). The sounds are more acoustic-based than their previous works: We detect Dylan (Song for Love), Ryan Adams (Before) and the Grateful Dead (The End of That). "I got no reason for blues," sings Spicer on the urgent Why & Why. That cut ends with the torn-throat mantra "Let it go, let it go, let it go," and this riveting album is the document of a band leaving its stepping stones behind. Brad Wheeler
Soul Is Heavy
- Three stars
Given that she has roots both in Nigeria and Germany, it's no surprise that Nneka Egbuna's sound would cross borders so easily, moving between reggae, hip hop and soul with the freedom of a true cultural vagabond. No surprise, then, that her third album includes cameos by such diverse figures as MC Black Thought from the Roots, U.K. rap star Ms. Dynamite, and the Nigerian band Wuru Samba. But it's Nneka's sensibility that dominates, whether in the way her effortlessly fluttering vocal lines match the polysyllabic flow of the rappers, or the ease with which she makes her lyric-laden melodies feel conversational. An album that's as impressive as it is ambitious. J.D. Considine
Still Image: Music by Owen Underhill
- Quatuor Bozzini
- Four stars
Owen Underhill's music is a sea of fluid contrasts: the busy clockwork time of action and dance and the suspended time of contemplation; bold gestures that cut across static, glassy textures; counterpoint one can see through, like a forest of bare trees, yet folded into consonances. The Bozzini Quartet provides haunting interpretations of Underhill's third and fourth string quartets, which sneak up on the heart via the head. Superb soloists grace the two wind quintets: Jeremy Berkman, who turns phrases into characters with eloquent tone and smooth line in Underhill's stunning Trombone Quintet, and clarinetist François Houle, whose cultivation of unorthodox techniques – liquid quartertones and multiphonics like fine sandpaper – heightens the sense of a music in which the detail is almost tactile, and none of it is expendable. Elissa Poole
This program will be performed at the CD launch concert, 8 p.m. on Feb. 26, at the Goldcorp Centre in Vancouver.
Voice of Ages
- The Chieftains
- Concord Music Group
- Three stars
That the Chieftains have been at it for half a century now is a milestone made all the more impressive by their insistence on continually adding fresh twists to traditional Irish music. Like much of their recent work, Voice of Ages is built around collaboration, this time with country and indie stars – including Bon Iver, the Decembrists, Civil Wars and Pistol Annies – who weren't even born when the band debuted. Most tracks are pretty enough, but the best moments come when a bit of fire and soul are added to the mix, as on Carolina Rua with Imelda May and (especially) Pretty Little Girl with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. J.D.C.