Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Sleigh Bells doing "Riot Rhythm"

And it wasn't in a Honda ad!  (Although I tell ya, things being what they are, it's nice to see musicians getting paid.)  No, it was in the car, listening to album-of-the-year contender and future Kidz Bop cornucopia Treats.  The Sleigh Bells' appeal is so broad that a certain five-year-old who's supposed to be napping in the next room is instead singing the lead riff from "Riot Rhythm", which he heard emanating from my speakers:

That riff'll really cut through a crowd!  Sort of like Idina Menzel's voice.  (They should cast her in Les Miz, and then people wouldn't fall asleep.)  "Riot Rhythm" is one of the first four songs on Treats, none of which have any chord changes to speak of.  The guitar, vocal, and synth lines sometimes imply other chords, but everything hovers around that big TONIC, which, as often as not, is also only implied by the melodies.  Like Prince's "When Doves Cry", "Riot Rhythm" has no bassline.  The bass drum sound, which I assume is a synth, resonates enough that it establishes the key at the beginning, even before Alexis Krauss's vocal melody jumps in to help.

As bang-you-over-the-head simple as the Sleigh Bells sound, they're fairly canny composers.  Take our new friend the "Riot Rhythm" riff, which you'll now sing all day long.  The first two notes of the riff are the natural third and fourth of the key; later in the riff, we hear the flat third and flat sixth, which sound unnatural in the key.  If this song had any chord changes -- if that big resonant bass drum started sounding a sixth or a fourth or any other note in the scale -- those two flat notes would make the riff sound like a blues riff, or at least blues-derived.  (You can imagine performers from Irma Thomas to Robert Goulet scatting the first half of the "Riot Rhythm" riff, swinging it, maybe winking and asking about people's hometowns.)  But that doesn't happen, because the Sleigh Bells don't change chords.  Over their inflexible TONIC, the flat notes have no blues connotations at all, and neither does the riff as a whole.  Rather, the riff sounds severe, unbeholden.  It exists in a musical world inhabited only by the Sleigh Bells.

[Concerned parents note:  five-year-old is now asleep.  Soon I need to wake him for his first piano lesson.]

Mark Richardson in Pitchfork: "[A]n even greater source of [Treats's] appeal is how it doesn't sound especially referential...  [Sleigh Bells] gather up bits from all over and use them to create music that puts you squarely in the present moment."  I wish I could put a finer point on that statement because I think I see what he's saying, but we needn't create a dichotomy between "sounding referential" and "putting you squarely in the present moment."  Think of Britney's "Toxic":  a whole song full of blatant musical references out of the past, but it still sounded au courant in, what, 2003?  (Probably still would today.)  Like Sleigh Bells, "Toxic" "gathers up bits from all over and uses them to create music that puts you squarely in the present moment."  Unlike the Bells, "Toxic" does indeed "sound especially referential."  What's the difference?  I'm not sure.  Just as "Toxic" asks us to revel in its Bollywood strings and surf guitar, "Riot Rhythm" asks us -- blatantly, without disguise -- to revel in its metal lead guitar and drumline rhythm.  ("You gotta march!")  But "Toxic" actually sounds like fake Bollywood music with surf guitar, and "Riot Rhythm" sounds like Sleigh Bells.  One's not necessarily better than the other; I just haven't pinpointed the compositional technique that separates the two. 

So, you know, leave comments and whatnot.

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