Album reviews: Sleigh Bells and Cloud Nothings

February 21, 2012

Wanna push this blogger’s buttons? A surefire winner always is the mix of indelible melodies with chaotic guitar noise, whatever the context and other elements at work. But while many critics were hailing Treats, the 2010, M.I.A.-endorsed debut by the Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, as a masterpiece in exactly that mould, to these ears, the major buzz drowned out the minor charms of the much-ballyhooed collaboration between songwriter and producer Derek Miller (ex-Poison the Well) and wispy vocalist Alexis Krauss (formerly of Rubyblue). And album number two is even more of disappointment.

The duo may aim to craft killer pop hooks, the better to offset Miller’s over-the-top dense and harsh wall-of-noise backings and generic electro-beats, but the melodies never grab you, as much because Krauss’s chirpy little-girl cooing annoys more than it seduces, as well as the fact that the melodies just aren’t very memorable or all that melodic. For that matter, Miller’s grooves and guitar-shredding are nothing special, either, while the lyrics—lots of talk of winning, losing and dying slapped on ironic (one assumes) hair-metal song titles such as “Born to Lose,” “Never Say Die,” and “Road to Hell”—are just plain inane.

“Push it, push it!” Krauss wails in “True Shred Guitar.” Yeah, well, if Sleigh Bells had pushed a little harder, and favored Slayer’s brand o’ shredding over Poison’s, maybe this band would not have been such a hollow hype.

Infinitely more successful in the sweet/sour, melody/noise sweepstakes and essentially inhabiting a whole different universe is Cleveland songwriter Dylan Baldi, whose Cloud Nothings have expanded from a one-man lo-fi bedroom project to a full-on four-piece band on Attack on Memory, its second proper album, recorded with all of his famous live-in-the-room verisimilitude and in-your-face wallop by Chicago’s Steve Albini.

Many and varied are the reference points invoked by the band’s fans, from old-school emo (Fugazi) to the more melodic mid-period Midwestern stuff (Get Up Kids), ’80s indie rock (Hüsker Dü) to ’90s alt royalty (Nirvana circa In Utero), vintage shoegaze (Ride) to modern art-punk conceptualists (F*cked up, with whom Cloud Nothings have toured). Debate the accuracy of any or all comparisons and how those jibe with the carpe diem lyrics and ahistoric album title if you will, but they matter not a whit, as this is no nostalgia trip. So potent are the juxtapositions of explosions of noise guitar and deceptively lulling interludes, million-dollar riffs and amelodic insanity, screams of desperation and rousing, sing-along choruses in unforgettable tunes such as “Our Plans,” “No Future/No Past,” “Fall In” and even the instrumental “Separation” that Cloud Nothings are another, very welcome contender for the only band that matters, and their latest indisputably is the hardest-hitting disc yet released in 2012.

Sleigh Bells, “Reign of Terror” (Mom + Pop); rating on the four-star scale: 1 star.

Cloud Nothings, “Attack on Memory” (Carpark); rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars.