Pruning next month’s Noise Pop Festival for the not-to-be-missed

Sleigh Bells (2/23 at The Regency Ballroom · Tickets)

Of all the bands lumped into this year’s Noise Pop festival, Sleigh Bells are probably most exemplary of the eponymous genre. “Noise pop” is typically understood as a niche occupying “the halfway point between bubble gum and the avant-garde”; one need look no further for the words to describe this Brooklyn Duo’s aesthetic of contrasts.

On the two tracks released so far in advance of Sleigh Bells’ sophomore album, Reign of Terror, metal-leaning arrangements coexist with Alexis Krauss’ pronouncedly feminine vocals. Leaden distortion and punishing percussion succumb to the duo’s heretofore-established pop imperative in anthemic, catchy choruses.

With Krauss’s glossy, seductive vocals on “Born to Lose” allowing themselves to be battered and effaced by tommy-gun drum bursts and ten-ton power chords, it is too clear that the song is shooting for the sublime (it misses, but only slightly).

Comeback Kid finds the singer with more personality. Ostensibly stocked with self confidence, the song’s voice gives some straight talk pep to a less well-fortified partner: “I know it’s hard but/ you’ve gotta deal with it/ why don’t you look around/ show me what you’re made of/ don’t turn around/ go get your gun ready.”

The question is, does this musical mixology earn Sleigh Bells the prestige of sonic innovation, or does “Comeback Kid” amount to a same old thing, superficially repackaged (Hard Rock Rihanna, Stoner Metal Barbie and Ken)? As usual, the question is, on the one hand, critically a propos, and on the other, totally irrelevant, because the tunes sound freakin’ awesome.

With an album title like Reign of Terror (compare to the previous Treats) and a teaser video as horrorific as this one, though, Sleigh Bells’ trajectory is somewhat eyebrow raising.

Hard rock/metal can prove a limiting outerwear for an interior the consistency of fresh chewing gum. For one, too often it falls back on volume to achieve effect. A slight twist of the dial is enough to completely neuter a song like “Born to Lose.”

In the past, Sleigh Bells’ melodicisim has been key in spite of the decibels (“Rill Rill” ). The band proves its best when engaging pop and noise in an equal-strength tug of war, as with the firework launching cheer chant album opener, “Tell ‘Em” and standout single, “Riot Rhythm.”

Hard rock-style distortion can also be tiresomely monolithic – a lot of big, single-textured grunge, amplified to the Nth degree. In contrast, one of the greatest pleasures of Treats was actually its diversity of sounds, which seemed to spiral out from the worlds of videogame and recording studio like so much burning chaff.

This is a band whose sound lends itself almost perfectly to the mixology metaphor: its success is determined by proportion – sweet, bitter and high proof must combine in proper measure. Hopefully Reign of Terror will prove a slightly steadier balancing act than its hype trail has so far suggested. Fortunately, however wack or un-wack the new album might turn out, Sleigh Bells’ scale promises to be wonderfully and overwhelmingly gigantic, making this one of the most anticipated live shows of the New Year.

Surfer Blood (2/25 at The Independent · Tickets)

Imagine, if you will, the beachy air of coastal Florida vibrating intensely within a no-frills garage. Say this is Surfer Blood’s practice space – a slightly doughy American boy and his three band mates are rattling out tunes marked by the same fount of inspiration that has animated coastal rock romantics from The Beach Boys to The Ramones to Weezer.

“Surf Rock” may not be timeless, but it sure seems on a track never to die. The difference between Surfer Blood and most modern day peddlers of the genre is that, where the others succeed in just barely maintaining a pulse, Surfer Blood has the rare heart necessary to truly get the genre’s lifeblood (quickly followed by adrenaline) flowing.

Listen to “Swim;” note your difficulty in remaining seated. Built around a super-charged reprisal of the central chord progression in the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” (among dozens of other rock jams), the song instantly blossoms into a rousing and complete character all its own.

The song’s voice is preoccupied about a girl. “Quit hanging over me,” frontman John Pitts shouts. “Look at the hair on the back of my neck.” He powers through in a charged, staccato chorus: “Swim to reach the end; But I am steady not to offend; on whom can you depend?; Swim to reach the end!,” he belts. It’s a refreshingly driven, concerted transformation of angst into bliss (and a perhaps equally driven, concerted enunciation of the oft-dropped “m” in whom, for whatever that is worth). It made for one of the most endlessly repeatable rock songs of 2010.

Catholic Pagans” too starts out from and then perfectly transcends a massively overused chord progression. Here, the grammatically conscious voice from “Swim” opens up about his bad boy side (“coupled with a weakness for cocaine and liquor, not much a candidate for love”) righting itself before the influence of a good girl (“I don’t want to be a catholic pagan now that you’re here”).

But the song is not so much a “gee, thanks” as a painfully desperate appeal for this obviously unstable state of affairs not to decompose: “I’m not saying that I’ve earned love; but I could really use it now; so turn out the lights over and over and over; we’ll figure out the rest somehow.”

Surfer Blood’s latest EP, Tarot Classics, leaves off pretty much right where debut Astro Coast left off, kicking into gear with the emotional befuddlement of “Miranda” – what could be a cut from Weezer’s post-adolescent masterwork, Pinkerton. “We just let each other down; to let each other back in; How can you say to me; that it’s not meant to be?”

A good question. There is room to doubt the value in listening to coastal boys prattle about their girlfriend issues, decade after decade, but Surfer Blood accounts for none of it. With their straight-to-the-jugular power pop, the romance in the genre renews.

Some more Noise Pop picks:
The Flaming Lips (2/21 at Bimbo’s 365 Club · Sold Out; start Craigslisting)
Matthew Dear (2/24 at Public Works · Tickets)
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks (2/28 at Slim’s · Tickets)

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