ALBUM REVIEW: Sleigh Bells, and some thoughts on Tipper Gore

June 3, 2010

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Sleigh Bells, "Treats" (Mom + Pop/N.E.E.T.)

The buzz has been building for the debut album by songwriter and producer Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss ever since the Brooklyn hipsters made their high-profile debut at the CMJ Festival in 2009. Amplified by a series of demos leaked on the Net and the fact that the pair was signed to M.I.A.'s boutique label, N.E.E.T, the roar of approval has only increased in volume now that Sleigh Bells has issued its official debut album (Pitchfork score: 8.7). But these 11 tracks strike me as a whole lot of noise with nothing much substantive underneath all the clatter.

When I say "whole lot of noise," I mean a whole lot of noise: The group's hook is that it takes Krauss' exuberant and at times annoyingly giddy cheerleader chanting and Miller's relatively simple but undeniably catchy hip-pop tunes -- think of the Go! Team with even more caffeine but a lot less innocent charm -- and then wraps everything in a dense and damn near unlistenable aural assault. This won't be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with Miller's pedigree as the guitarist for the screamo/hardcore band Poison the Well, though in that setting, the noise generally was employed in conventional settings: beefing up the guitars, and distorting those Cookie Monster vocals. Here, there's barely a note emanating from any source that isn't covered in ferocious fuzz.

Mind you, I have nothing against fuzz -- or feedback, buzzing, whirring, or clanging. In fact, I've championed plenty of recordings most of humanity found unlistenable, both in the analog (Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music," yeah!) and the digital (hooray for the Aphex Twin!) realms. But Miller specializes in a particular kind of noise -- heaviest on the digital clipping -- which invariably sounds more like a mistake than a mission statement, and which has the grating, fingernails-on-an-electronic-chalkboard quality of a malfunctioning Disc Man, or a CD being ground to dust by a malfunctioning hard drive. As such, it sounds like a grating gimmick more than the winning sweet/sour pop/chaos statement that the band's boosters are championing. And it just bugs the heck out of me.

Sleigh Bells performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park on Sunday, July 18. Star rating on the traditional four-star scale: 1 STAR.

Rating:1/4

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RIMSHOTS

During a break in taping "Sound Opinions" yesterday, I happened to run into my public radio colleagues Mike Danforth and Peter Sagal of "Wait Wait"¦ Don't Tell Me," locked deep in debate in WBEZ's kitchenette over the propriety of whether the end of Al and Tipper Gore's 40-year marriage was proper comedic fodder for their own show. (Danforth: pro; Sagal: con. We'll have to tune in to find out who prevailed.)

Far be it from me to scoff at or heap misery on anyone going through so difficult a personal trial as a divorce, but whenever I hear the name "Tipper Gore," I still see red: It can be argued that she holds‚  a dubious honor of being one of the most sanctimonious and destructive opponents rock 'n' roll has faced since its origins more than half a century ago. And that is not something easily forgotten or forgiven.

Because Tipper's crusading past is worth remembering, here is a piece I wrote shortly after the first Clinton inauguration, putting Tipper's anti-musical acts in the spotlight.

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By Jim DeRogatis January 21, 1993
Wasn't that special?
Onstage at the inaugural gala Tuesday night, Tipper Gore boogied along with Fleetwood Mac and Aretha Franklin as if she was a hot rockin' mama.
Watching, you'd have had a hard time remembering that she has more in common with the Church Lady than the Queen of Soul.
Tipper, you'll recall, is the founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, though no one's mentioned it lately.
Based in Arlington, Va., the group monitors what it calls offensive lyrics in rock and hip-hop. In the late "˜80s, it successfully forced record companies to use parental warning labels.
Many retail chains complied by refusing to carry warning-stickered albums altogether.
President Clinton has tried to look hip by blowing sax, professing his devotion to Elvis and booking everyone from Toad the Wet Sprocket to Bob Dylan at the inaugural. The entertainment at the Tennessee party included Lou Reed, the rocker who has sung about S&M, shot heroin onstage and married a transsexual. (They should have put a sticker on the ballroom door.)
So Tipper's old crusade has got to be a bit of an embarrassment. The Democrats' efforts to make her more palatable to the MTV generation are worthy of Republican spinmaster Roger Ailes.
During the campaign, Tipper bragged about playing drums in a rock band as a Virginia teenager. Last week, on the "Today" show, she crowed about the new set of Pearl drums that Al bought her for Christmas.
An anonymous Gore aide even told Newsweek magazine that Al and Tipper used to go slamdancing on weekends in Georgetown. (Now, that would be a sight.)
The slamdancing is hard to disprove, but considering how rare it would have been for any young woman to play drums in a rock group in Virginia in the early '60s, it's curious that this fact never surfaced before.
Funny, Tipper didn't say a word about her skins-bashing past during the 1985 Senate hearings on record labeling, even when Frank Zappa was calling her a prudish housewife. And it isn't mentioned in her 219-page testament to family values, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society.
Michael Lawrence, the book's editor, said he can't recall Tipper ever talking about her drumming. And a Parents Music Resource Center spokesman said he had no information about it.
Tipper's book is still the best indicator of where she really stands on rock "Ëœn' roll. First published in 1987 by Abingdon Press, an imprint owned by the Nashville-based United Methodist Publishing House, it has sold more than 50,000 copies, and a new edition was released to coincide with the inauguration.
The debate over pop-music lyrics has always inspired sharp rhetoric from both sides. But Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society isn't nearly as didactic as you might expect.
Tipper is too smart to deliver bonehead soundbites about the evils of rock 'n' roll. Instead, she makes a relatively calm and well-reasoned argument against exposing kids to excessively graphic and violent songs and videos.
The problem is, she defines "excessive" as anything different from the music she grew up with.
"Like many parents of my generation, I grew up listening to rock music and loving it, watching television and being entertained by it," she writes. "But something has happened since the days of  "Twist and Shout' and "I Love Lucy.' "‚  She goes on to chronicle objectionable lyrics by Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Sheena Easton (Sheena Easton?) and Prince. But her gripes are basically baby-boomer myopia. The stuff she grew up with is art, but the stuff these kids listen to today. . . . "
It is a quantum leap from the Beatles' "ËœI Want to Hold Your Hand' to Prince singing (about masturbation in) "Darling Nikki,' " Tipper claims.
Yet the Beatles had their own song about backseat groping, "Please Please Me." The language in "Darling Nikki" is coarser, but the topic is the same, and Gore seems unwilling to admit it.
"I think there's something to be said about the geezer theory," said Deena Weinstein, a DePaul University professor who wrote about Parents Music Resource Center in her book, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology.
"These people who are putting down rock always claim to be pro-rock. But they're pro-rock of their adolescence, not what's happening today." The Parents Music Resource Center's original funding came from Beach Boy Mike Love. Tipper says he's also upset about vulgar lyrics, but it's more likely he's bothered that the Beach Boys haven't been relevant since 1967.
Tipper is still secretary of the organization's executive board and has said she'll remain active now that her husband's been sworn in. "This is still a very important issue for her," resource center staffer Tom Davis said.
Next month, Tipper is due to speak at a conference at the University of Missouri called "On the Beat: Rock "Ëœn' Rap, Mass Media and Society."‚  It's unlikely she'll launch any new attacks on popular music now that she commands the national spotlight. But anyone who thinks our new leaders understand rock 'n' roll just because they're baby boomers should realize that, in Tipper's case at least, the new boss is the same as the old boss.