With their third album in four years, Sleigh Bells contradict critics who, upon the arrival of their much-loved 2010 debut Treats, declared the Brooklyn noise-pop pair fully formed. Sure, the basic ingredients haven’t changed on Bitter Rivals — overdriven punk/metal guitars, jackhammer hip-hop beats and breathy pop vocals. This is largely the same act that pushed digital distortion to crazy heights with “Crown on the Ground” and other bubble-core anthems.
But whereas Treats and, to a lesser extent, last year’s Reign of Terror, was dominated by the duo’s male half, Derek E. Miller, ex-guitarist for Florida hardcore band Poison the Well, Bitter Rivals is more about Alexis Krauss, a former teenpop singer who, for the first time, writes much of the melodies. Kanye West’s engineer Andrew Dawson adjusts the pair’s balance to accentuate Krauss’s newly emphatic presence. She’s chanting less and singing more, and although the results are still quintessentially indie, there’s less Black Flag and more Ace of Base.
Bitter Rivals is sequenced much like its predecessor — crunchy songs up front, poppy cuts in the middle and ballads in the back. Acoustic guitars show up on “Sugarcane,” “Minnie,” “Young Legends” and “You Don’t Get Me Twice,” even if they’re usually strummed aggressively and often fed through the usual compression. “To Hell with You” drops the six-strings entirely, and puts in their place orchestral keyboard hits, thundering drum programming, and pseudo-scratching for a slower variant on ’80s freestyle club jams. “24″ opens with hair-metal guitar noodling, but then tucks it firmly behind Krauss’s crooning. In the album’s most radical departure, a nearly folky bridge shows up in concluding cut “Love Sick,” which ends pointedly with actual sleigh bells. It hammers the point home: Rather than radically changing, Sleigh Bells are becoming more themselves.