On Sunday, Hot Chip and Sleigh Bells played hour-long, back-to-back sets at Merriweather Post Pavilion. But when all was said and done, it wasn’t entirely clear why they paired up in the first place.
In style and sound, the bands have little in common. Sleigh Bells is an in-your-face duo (touring as a trio) based in Brooklyn. Hot Chip is composed of five quirky Brits. Sleigh Bells released its second album, the aggressive metal-inspired “Reign of Terror” in February. Last month, Hot Chip released its fifth album, the insightful, ’80s pop-inspired “In Our Heads.” On Sunday, Sleigh Bells zigged, Hot Chip zagged and the whole thing felt a little disjointed.
Led by vocalist Alexis Krauss, Sleigh Bells slammed the audience over the head with its sound, smoke machines and strobe lights — all cranked a little too high. In fishnet stockings and leopard-print shorts, she played the part of an over-the-top hard-core rocker — shrieking into her microphone, head-banging melodramatically and coyly petting the audience. The singing, which had its strong moments but was largely drowned out, felt secondary. By Krauss’s fifth or sixth howl, the show felt less like music and more like bad theater, high in energy but low in substance.
Hot Chip used its hour differently. The band’s members took the stage unassumingly, hardly spoke and deftly traded instruments in between each song (a rarity for a group that technically produces electronic dance music; no DJ booth here). Hot Chip’s beats were gentler than those of Sleigh Bells but had the audience all smiles, shaking their hips instead of fists.
While Sleigh Bells looked trendy, Hot Chip appeared refreshingly unstyled, as if its members had been plucked straight from the library. They’re more interested in synth than swag, anyway. During “Night and Day,” a bouncy, Kraftwerk-esque track from their newest album, singer Alexis Taylor turned his thick glasses toward the crowd and crooned, “Let’s sweat, let’s sweat, let’s sweat.” Later, during “Ready for the Floor,” the group elegantly transitioned into a surprise cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere,” a light love song that befitted Taylor’s soft soprano. It was the perfect touch to a set from a band that knows its limits and plays to its strengths.
But about the audience members: Where were they? Perhaps more puzzling than the pairing was the largely vacant venue. Only about one-third of the seats were occupied (at most), which was surprising given Hot Chip’s recent string of big gigs that include Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, New York’s Terminal 5 and a sold-out show at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
This isn’t the first time the bands have joined forces. They toured with the now-retired LCD Soundsystem in 2010 and had the band’s former frontman, James Murphy, open Sunday’s show with a 90-minute DJ set. As Krauss told the audience, it was “like a family reunion.”
The bonds that Hot Chip and Sleigh Bells share offstage are difficult to see in their performances. There’s a valley between them that could very well be experience. Hot Chip has at least six years on Sleigh Bells, and the disparity in sophistication between the two bands is obvious. Where Sleigh Bells comes off like its got something to prove, Hot Chip tends to let the music speak for itself.