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Formula can be a blessing and a curse. The Ramones had one that was so great, its members were almost trapped by it. The noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells' formula is breathtakingly great, too — and its third record, Bitter Rivals, reconfirms it.
The group is still defined by brutal stomp-clap rhythms, guitar noise, overmodulated shout-singing and vocalist Alexis Krauss' suburban, tough-gal persona. But this is album No. 3, and you can hear Sleigh Bells fighting against its own formula. It's a positive development: There's a lot of acoustic guitar, although the instrument takes a beating. There are also more melody and singing, and some impressively bulked-up '90s-style R&B.
A change even more startling comes with down-tempo songs such as "To Hell With You," which sounds like a '60s girl group conducting military drills. Tracks in this vein somehow sound both sweet and menacing.
The upshot of Bitter Rivals is Sleigh Bells trying to figure out how to make subversive pop music actually pop, without losing the subversiveness. It's a fine line, and the musicians are thoroughly stomping on it.