Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Live: Sleigh Bells + Cults

When: 5/11
Where: Ridgewood Temple

Let's just get this out of the way - M.I.A. was not at the Sleigh Bells concert last night. I take full responsibility, I totally jinxed it by boasting to my friends that I was going to see her. She was never announced, but a big enough deal was made of the promised "secret guests" that it was generally concluded she would make an appearance in one way or another. And for the record, this assumption was not actually incorrect. According to inside sources, M.I.A. was actually the intended "secret guest" but she got sick at the last minute so DJs Shirley Braha (New York Noise) and Peggy Wang (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart) were called in to take her place. I left after Sleigh Bells but there were meant to be other DJs, supposedly including M.I.A.'s assistant. Who is M.I.A.'s assistant? And does she know how to DJ? Weird.

I showed up in time to see Cults play. They are a band with a bunch of dudes with long hair playing instruments and one American Apparel-type hipster girl with long hair singing. I don't know how this band built so much hype on what's only their third show and only a few months into their existence. But however they got to be a buzz item, it wasn't through being a great band. To put it concisely, they sucked.

The band was originally and remains at its core a duo, Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin. According to an interview with Pitchfork, Follin actually has a punk rock background, which makes the anticourageousness of Cults all the more maddening. The band sounds like 60's girl groups meet 80's indie pop, which is really not the most original or exciting combination, especially these days. The songs are well enough written and arranged but there are no surprises and nothing original. Worst of all was the singing. Now, it's never fair to judge a singer from a single live performance because it's always possible to have a situation where you can't hear yourself well, but this girl was way off key the whole time. I mean, it was painful.

Cults certainly didn't ask for their quick rise to fame and given that they aren't even prepared for that, they can't be prepared for the backlash that's about to start, especially from grumpy bloggers like me. Well, buckle up, kids, cause there's no stopping the hype train.

Sleigh Bells headlined. Now, I found out about M.I.A.'s absence upon arrival but there was no official announcement of her canceling because she was never on the bill in the first place. I expected awkwardness at the end of Sleigh Bells set while the crowd waited for the superstar that would never appear. But I underestimated Sleigh Bells. They blew the crowd away and didn't need any secret guests to make this one of the concerts of the year.

Although Sleigh Bells' rise to fame has been intensely fast, they seemed surprisingly comfortable handling a crowd that probably bordered on four digits. Alexis Krauss seems made for this. She stormed the stage, shaking off her hood, grabbing the mic with both hands and shouting "What's up Brooklyn!" to a cheering room. The band wasted no time, slamming into the opening bars of the opening track on their new album and only allowing the audience one deep breath before launching into each new song.

There were only two problems with the show. The first was that while the Ridgewood Temple is a very hip place for a show, they don't have even a fraction of the sound system it would take to do Sleigh Bells justice. The band did the best with the volume you had and the screaming crowd made up the difference. The second problem is a bit more damning. Not very much of Sleigh Bells' music is actually created live. They just hit play on each track and added guitar and lead vocals. This was first of all robbing the audience of the thrill of seeing the music actually created, and second of all, held the band to pretty much exactly replicating their album rather than branching out. I do wonder if there's more they could do - starting and stopping individual loops instead of the entire mixed track, for example - that would make this seem less like lip syncing. (To be clear, I'm not saying they were lip syncing. Not literally, anyway.)

Anyway, that may sound like a big problem, but this band is so good that even that can overlooked. Hooded and not at all reformed hardcore guitarist Derek Miller layed out shattering guitar while Krauss sang and shouted and screamed (she loves to throw in a good high-pitched scream), sometimes all at the same time. She's a crowd pleaser, squatting at the front of the stage, passing the mic into the audience for the better-known choruses and affectionally grabbing at the outreached hands in the front rows. Then, at the end of the last song, the ultra-awesome "Crown on the Ground," she launched herself into the audience with absolutely no warning. The fans barely caught her, so sudden was her leap, but they hoisted her up and passed her around. She was still out from the stage when the song ended and she was handed back to the front to an explosion of applause.

The band didn't indulge themselves at all, though many young bands in their position would have. They played a relatively short set (with an odd number of non-album tracks) and kept their encore to a single song, "Rill Rill," their answer to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes." (And no, it's not as good as "Paper Planes" but it's getting there.)

The press presence at the show was insane. I heard folks from places like, say, MTV, were being booted from the guest list in favor of "higher priority" media. (No idea who is higher priority than MTV.) But even the small army of photographers running around on stage right were no distraction. Instead, they added to the feeling that this was something historic. And one look at the crowd could confirm this. Hundreds of hands in the air, hundreds of girls and boys jumping in unison with the floor bowing dangerously under them, strobe lights flashing, beach balls and bodies flying - this is it. Sleigh Bells are the future of music. Score one sick distortion.

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