I could never be a reviewer of films or music. I have a great deal of trouble sitting down to write something negatively about a piece of work. That doesn’t mean that I would write a good review of a bad piece, instead I would prefer to write nothing. I would ultimately only write about the work that I like. Time and energy to write is a precious commodity to me and I don’t want to waste it on negativity. I do, however, appreciate a good conversational debate and will gladly discuss my disappointments face to face (or through the occasional 140 character “tweet”).
With that being said my disappointment with Sleigh Bells’ “live” show that I attended at Boston’s Royale last week (where they played with Die Antwoord) has weighed on me heavily enough that I have to write about it. It wasn’t that the performance was “bad” outright, if that was the case I would have forgotten about it and felt no need to rant. Instead it was my disappointment that Sleigh Bells have so much potential to put on an amazing show and it felt squandered. Sleigh Bells’ debut CD “Treats” has been on heavy rotation in my life since it was released a few months ago. I like their tunes, my favorite tracks are “Tell ‘em”, “Treats”, “Infinity Guitars”, I can do without “A/B Machines” but overall it’s really, really good, full of energy, motivation and inspiration inducing. In fact listening to it in my car during my daily commute I’ve envisioned a conceptual, non-linear, short-film, full album music video that I would love to make. Bottom line is I really like what they do.
In a prefatory note to A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music, Anthony Burgess wrote that the title “A Clockwork Orange” is a metaphor for “…an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into an automaton.” Unfortunately, that’s ultimately what Sleigh Bells’ “live” show is. For those not aware, Sleigh Bells is “noise pop” duo Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss. Miller composed and recorded all of Sleigh Bells’ music and Krauss does all of the vocals. Sleigh Bells’ music is loud, densely layered guitars, drums, tambourines, sirens, backing vocals and samples. For their live shows Miller plays the lead guitar parts of the songs and Krauss handles lead vocals. All other instrumentation is handled by a pre-recorded background track. Essentially, in basest terms Miller and Krauss play along with the CD.
Which is the root of my disappointment in their “live” show. When I see a live band play I expect and hope to be able to see and hear something that is different, more organic and unpredictable than what I hear when I play songs on my iPod, that is, to me, the point of seeing live music. The Sleigh Bells’ live performance is held captive by the uncompromising timing of the backing track. When the pre-recorded song ends, THE SONG ENDS. There is no room for fluctuation or improvisation or extending or variations. For example, during their last song of the night Alexis Krauss dove in and was crowd surfing. The crowd was going wild! The music was pumping, Miller was jamming on guitar and then… it ended. Period. Silence. That was it. Krauss was left stranded in the middle of the crowd, with no music to accompany her ride back to the stage. It’s really an unfortunate situation because Krauss clearly has the stage presence and energy to command a killer live show, instead she’s a slave to the pre-recorded backing track (in actuality the backing track is about 90% of the song, Miller’s guitar is about 5% and Krauss’s live lead vocals the other 5%). She also falls prey to having to compete with her own previously, perfectly recorded backing vocals, which makes her live vocals sound poor by comparison. Don’t get me wrong, Krauss has a great voice for the genre but competing against herself just isn’t a fair fight, and makes her sound worse than she should, by comparison. At least we know she isn’t lip-syncing, but if most of the music is pre-recorded anyway, would it really matter? Could someone really, legitimately complain that she was lip-syncing, but be okay with a previously recorded background music track?
During the show I had occasion to think about ways Sleigh Bells’ could improve upon what I was experiencing.
Touring Musicians: The conventional approach would be to hire musicians for support during the tour. I understand that Sleigh Bells are a new band and might not have the funds to hire a pack of touring musicians to support them. Make no mistake, they will need to at some point or risk simply being a loud karaoke show. Nine Inch Nails did it, Ministry did it, Sleigh Bells will have to also. At this point, there may be a few ways around outright hiring.
On-Stage DJ: Put a DJ on stage with all of the elements at his/her finger tips. This would allow the songs to organically move with the show. When Krauss is out crowd surfing the song could continue until she gets back to the stage. If Miller plays a solo the elements could be adjusted, and so on. Of course Miller might be wary about letting someone twiddle with his compositions.
Fan Support: Sleigh Bells’ songs are very heavy on the percussion side of the spectrum, what if they selected 10 fans attending the show to come on stage and handle percussion duties. Fans that know the songs would certainly be able to drum, tambourine and jingle bells. That kind of interactivity could be pretty awesome. Or Fans (or local musicians) could sign up on-line ahead of time and “audition” to join the band on stage when Sleigh Bells play their town. I’m sure there are plenty of fans that would jump at that opportunity.
Sleigh Bells’ well-deserved hype went into overdrive last year when they blew audiences (and reporters and critics and everyone else) away with their live show during the CMJ Music Festival in Brooklyn. It is easy to understand how seeing them in a cramped venue in Brooklyn before hearing any of their music could be a transcendental experience. For them to bring that experience to larger venues and bigger audiences they are going to need to expand their live show to become something more than a reordering of pre-recorded tracks from the CD played loud. I truly hope the hype and popularity of this band continues to rise so that they have the opportunity to grow. I know I’m looking forward to seeing their evolution and will be sure to catch them every time they’re in town.
I should make sure to point out that my wife, Kim, was very reluctant to go to the show but I dragged her anyway. About 15 seconds into the first song she was enthralled and energized by Sleigh Bells. Kim is generally not a fan of female vocalists but Krauss’ energy and stage presence won her over immediately and her new-found fandom was reinforced when she had the opportunity to meet the very charming singer at the merch table while Die Antwoord finished up their set.