Concert preview: Sleigh Bells pull back slightly with Bitter Rivals

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From the November 7, 2013 edition

After releasing a pair of snarling albums defined by a near-relentless momentum, Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells finally slows things down with “To Hell With You,” a bruised kiss-off that falls near the close of its third full-length, Bitter Rivals.

Not surprisingly, the track is guitarist Derek Miller's least favorite song on the new record.

“Not that I don't like it,” said Miller, reached on the road with singer and bandmate Alexis Krauss outside a venue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “But I prefer to play loudly. Big surprise, right?”

While volume has defined the band's past work — in concert Miller bashes out an assortment of arena-sized riffs while standing in front of a comically intimidating wall of Marshall amplifiers — Bitter Rivals finds the musicians exploring new sonic territory, venturing from R&B-tinged rockers (“Young Legends”) to bluesier numbers like “Tiger Kit.”

Miller, for his part, is hesitant to term the pair's decision to branch out a risk, because he finds it galling when musicians apply the word to creative decisions.

“Really? What did you risk? Your cushy music career?” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I would live and die for this band, but I have a healthy perspective on the whole thing. A real bad day is when people you love drop dead. A bad day is not when somebody talks bad about you on the internet. That’s not real.”

The band's earliest records tend to serve as documents of Miller's “bad day[s],” with lyrics born of the guitarist's battles with a range of internal demons, none of which he felt like rehashing, for obvious reasons. With Bitter, however, the musician's gaze finally shifts outward.

“It's a terrifying thing,” Krauss howls on one tune inspired in part by the country's ongoing infatuation with celebrity-driven culture, “the American Dream!”

“On [2012's] Reign of Terror I was thinking of one or two specific things that had occurred in my life, and it was a trap I couldn’t get out of,” said Miller, who still pens a bulk of Sleigh Bells' lyrics. “I spent a little less time in my head this time around, which I think is healthy.”

The guitarist said the lyrical shift is representative of a larger transformation he has undergone in recent months (“I made a lot of lifestyle changes,” he said), which has also revealed itself in his decision to take on a larger role in dealing with the media (before he abhorred chatting with journalists) and in some of his fashion choices. Most notably, he finally ditched the sunglasses that had been a constant shield since the band first broke into the public consciousness.

“Early on in the band I hated doing press and I hate being photographed, so the glasses were a convenient way for me to hide,” he said. “But after two record cycles of it you’re just the asshole with sunglasses on indoors, and I didn’t want to be that guy anymore.”

Photo by Petra Collins