Deciding what is expected, wanted and needed from a Sleigh Bells record is a strange task, especially for the band's third record. Treats was a collection of mischievous, fun jock jams for indie kids. Reign of Terror took that formula to the pits of depression and laid the metal on heavy. All the while, Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss have been praised by critics. So, can the third record get by on just being fun? Or does it have to show growth and exciting new ideas? Does anyone even want them to sound different?
Bitter Rivals does sounds different. The obvious reason for this is that Miller left the melody writing mostly up to Krauss this time. Some of it hints at ‘90s R&B, and even more of it at catchy, radio-ready pop. The album's biggest problem is the lyrics, which frequently rest on cliches -- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “Love is a contact sport.” But then, some of it is charming in its simplicity. “To Hell With You” takes an unexpected meaning when the full line becomes “I'll go to hell with you,” and then there's “there's a heart in my chest where a hole used to be.” Flipping the cliches works well enough.
Compared to Reign of Terror, Bitter Rivals is much lighter. Miller told New York magazine's Jody Rosen that he set aside the guitar he used for most of the last album for something with a thinner tone, and that sonic difference is noticeable. Even where the volume is just as high as it's been in the past, the sounds are brighter. The all-out ‘80s synth blasts on “Sing Like A Wire” are a prime example.
Sleighs Bells are still cranking out aggro pop candy though. “Minnie” takes the tried and true formula to extremes, with Krauss singing treacly melodies over a blown-out stomp-clap beat. The title track is more bad girl movie trailer or NFL highlight reel fodder. When it comes down to it, enjoying the hell out of Sleigh Bells is more important than a deeper listen, and Bitter Rivals gets after it.