Noise pop duo rise to the challenge of diversifying trademark sound with host of new elements, crafting one of their strongest albums.
When they first made waves back in 2010, Sleigh Bells were championed for their esoteric approach to pop music. Simply put, no one sounded like them. The template of Derek Miller’s metal guitar shredding and primitive, bomb-detonating percussion contrasted with Alexis Krauss’ sickly sweet cooing and a backing choir of deranged cheerleader chanting. In the back of one’s mind, though, there was the kernel of doubt that the duo occupied a kitschy space that would amount to a fad, their sound destined to wear thin after one or two albums. After all, as unique as their brand of abrasive pop is, it’s also inherently limited.
The double-edged sword of their minimalistic paradigm makes them instantly recognizable while confining the lengths at which they can expand. As strong and lauded as debut Treats and suicide-fixated followup Reign of Terror were, the novelty was already nearing the end of its shelf life on third record Bitter Rivals. A feeling of redundancy was setting in, that Miller and Krauss were falling prey to a lethargy and were lacking the inspiration to muster the necessary commitment.
Jessica Rabbit, thankfully, finds them wholly reinvigorated. The album wonderfully sidesteps the criticism that Sleigh Bells’ aesthetic could not grow, as the duo incorporates a number of new elements. Augmenting their hallmarks with a heavy amount of synths and keys, the album manages to still sound like Sleigh Bells, though unlike anything they’ve previously released. With a vibe evoking an alternate history’s ‘80s underground, the pop hooks are at their most pronounced in the band’s discography. Crushing as the beats are, they walk the delicate line between electronica and industrial, with start-stop punctuations, finger-snaps, and handclaps enhancing their character and veering several songs into dance rock territory.
With Miller having crafted a new sonic tableau, Krauss’ delivery is as alternately saccharine, coolly detached, and fierce as before, but she has added a level of vulnerability and a full-throated resolve in her projection. Her lyrics retain the themes of prior albums -- a focus on death and intense love, juxtaposing and pairing the two in a type of macabre romanticism. “And when you die / I wanna die, I wanna die with you / And lay us down for good," she proclaims in opening track “It’s Just Us Now”. There’s also a penchant for casting out lovers, each song’s narrative of relationships pushed to the emotional extreme of nearly being stylized melodrama.
Most notable is a gentleness and intimacy and a focus on atmosphere, accomplished by an uncharacteristic restraint. The bombast is still present, but takes on a supporting role used to inform the tunes rather than dominate them. “Baptism By Fire”, for example, finds Krauss singing affectionately over a bed of minor keyboard notes and scattershot drums that don’t overpower. There are also a few shorter tracks that make use of a chilly ambience, like the swirling “Torn Clean” and the dreamgaze-leaning “Loyal For” and “I Know Not to Count on You”, the latter two having the vibe of a haunted factory. Most affecting is the penultimate “Hyper Dark”, starting with Miller’s low-volume riffs that build in intensity before segueing into a chorus of glistening keys and Krauss crooning “Hyper dark / I think we have a problem."
Often, the songs abruptly shift time signatures, hooks, and overall direction near their midpoints, to the degree you might think one song ended and another started without a gap between them. “Crucible” kicks off with brash percussion and laser-like synth blasts before switching gears to an acoustic guitar loop with Krauss repeating, “Running on fumes then I was empty.” At a runtime of 2:42, “Throw Me Down the Stairs” opens with a lumbering heaviness, takes a left turn to a manic chorus, fades out to a meditative and hushed bridge, then surges back with all manner of clamor.
The album’s best cuts arrive early with the one-two punch of “Lightning Turns Sawdust Gold” and “I Can’t Stand You Anymore”, the respective third and fourth numbers. The former begins with a sample of a woman sobbing and piano plinking before bubbly, New Wave synths reminiscent of an eight-track video game come in. Miller’s guitar chugging behind her, Krauss waxes nostalgic by singing “I was dreaming of a dead-end street that we used to run down", initially delivering the line with a wistfulness before screaming it in a rage. The latter song is a frayed anthem for exorcising a noxious relationship. Prodigious with stomping percussion and metallic grooves in the verses, it turns spacious in the chorus for Krauss to proclaim her disavowal of someone for her own survival. What makes both songs linger, though, is the deft use of negative space between notes and frequent, unexpected instrumental stops, giving them a grandeur.
After a middling midsection, the record ends strongly on in its last four tracks. Starting with “Rule Number One”, Krauss robotically details unease over the modern world’s uncertainty before erupting with caterwaul no longer able to be contained. As it alternates from harsh bursts to soothing tones, the music suitably captures the vacillating internal struggle of one duking it out with depression and anxiety. After the aforementioned “Baptism By Fire” and continuing with “Hyper Dark”, closing number “As If” attacks with a barrage or rapid-fire drums and machine gun riffing, all before delicately fading out on a cushion of strings. Who would have ever thought a Sleigh Bells album would end with an unironic string section?
However, even with the laudable incorporation of more diverse elements, Jessica Rabbit doesn’t completely avoid the band’s greatest pitfall since the beginning. By about the eighth or ninth song, the album grows tiresome and listener fatigue sets in. A bloated tracklist of 14 songs is baffling, and as said above, the middle section bears the brunt of this quality dip. Had they edited it down to a more succinct 10 or even nine songs, such a knock could have been largely avoided. That said, Sleigh Bells should be commended for rising to the challenge they set for themselves. Jessica Rabbit might be their best record and the one most likely to reward repeated listens. Hopefully they’ve not overstayed their welcome and their efforts will get the public and critical attention the record deserves.