Sleigh Bells | Jessica Rabbit (Omnian Music Group)

Jessica Rabbit proves Sleigh Bells can be more than just a loud party band, and something more serious without being off-putting and tasteless.

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Noise pop duo Sleigh Bells are probably one of the most frustrating bands to like. Their stellar 2010 bombastic debut Treats felt fresh and original without seeming to try too hard. For a while it seemed as if they and indie pop contemporaries the Ting Tings had brought in a wave of brash DIY indie electro pop with punk-ish tendencies. However, bands like these creating sounds so unique from the early 2010s had an issue with moving forward, and Sleigh Bells was no exception.

Their second and third releases just didn’t live up to a lot of people’s wants and expectations, which is what makes liking them frustrating. Reign of Terror showed the band trying to become more serious, and while not exactly a bad album, it was a tasteless snoozer compared to the debut due all the chilled-out songs. It also didn’t help that the serious direction felt a little contrived. Then on Bitter Rivals, the duo attempted to go back to their roots of noise-pop party music, and the result came off almost parodic of themselves. While there were a few great songs, such as “To Hell With You,” “You Don’t Get Me Twice,” and “Sing Like a Wire;” you also had songs with lyrics such as “So make like a banana and split,” “I’m sending gummy bears to the electric chair,” and the cheesy line from A Tale of Two Cities in the title track.

So where do we find ourselves with Jessica Rabbit, the band’s fourth album? Thankfully, this might be the most interesting album Sleigh Bells has made since their debut. Throughout the 14-song collection, the band seems a lot more relaxed, but also more meticulous than before. They seem to be creating something they truly like without worrying about pleasing everyone. According to guitarist Derek Miller, they took their time on this album and got input from producers that encouraged them to get better and try harder, and it shows.

Melodic and rhythmic structures are experimented heavily, especially on the second half of the album. However, the structures don’t feel crudely mashed together, but rather transition into one another. “I Know Not to Count on You” builds for a minute before going into a ballad that feels appropriate to the bittersweet atmosphere they’ve created. “Rule Number One,” the first single, works even better here in the context of the album. The song is in two halves, a heavy section and a downtempo section. In the heavy section, front woman Alexis Krauss produces some of her most creative vocal work. Also in the same section, Miller’s instrumentation is reminiscent of the band’s best early work, without feeling self-derivative.

When the song goes into the second half, Krauss’s vocals and Miller’s gorgeous guitar instrumentation make the song beautifully dreamy, and aptly what some people described as “dream crunk” early in the band’s career. It seems as if the riff could jam out much longer and there wouldn’t be any complaints. In some ways, the second half of “Rule Number One” feels like the effect they were trying to achieve on the downtempo songs of Reign of Terror, but the band wasn’t musically there yet to fully recognize it. It’s also in these songs that experiment with structure and hooks that make it seem like Sleigh Bells have evolved from abrasive noise pop to what we should probably categorize as prog-pop.

This album is also more dynamic than previous Sleigh Bells albums. There might be more downtempo songs on Jessica Rabbit, but there’re more varieties and flavors to it. Single “Hyper Dark” feels urgent despite its stripped-down nature; “Baptism by Fire” starts with a simple, playful piano and slowly builds up; and “I Can Only Stare” is a gorgeous dream crunk number.

Songs like “Torn Clean” and “Loyal for” might be among the band’s slowest and stripped down tracks, but they also feature some of the duo’s most interesting atmospheric instrumental composition. Krauss’s vocal performance and composition on these two songs also sound more confident and stronger than when the band made the downtempo tracks on Reign of Terror.

Speaking of vocals, this is the first album the band’s made where Krauss’s vocals aren’t completely whisper thin and layered a million times. While this vocal direction is hinted on Bitter Rivals, it’s fully embraced on Jessica Rabbit. In the past, we might have thought that Krauss’s vocals were thin and weak, but here she’s proving she has quite a powerful voice. Vocally, Krauss takes command all throughout the album, but the newfound attitude is what elevates songs such as “Lightning Turns Sawdust Gold” and “I Can’t Stand You Anymore.”

Sleigh Bells’ initial weird brand of pop-hardcore, combing Miller’s background of hardcore punk and Krauss’s background of making pop music, can still be found throughout the album. The song “Unlimited Dark Paths” embodies this duality amazingly well, including a riff that, given a few adjustments, sounds as if it could be used on any punk album. Closing track “As if” also embodies this, but almost goes more into the realm of digital hardcore. It’d be interesting if Sleigh Bells did an album more in this direction.

So is Jessica Rabbit better than Treats? Not entirely. However, it is better than both Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals, and feels like the band’s first true step forward, which is a major improvement. If Sleigh Bells wants to keep moving forward, they need to evolve and expand their sound and musical palette more. One of the hindrances of the overall sonic nature of this album is that it doesn’t feel as new or fresh as it did when we first heard the sound in 2010. Nevertheless, Jessica Rabbit proves Sleigh Bells can be more than just a loud party band, and something more serious without being off-putting and tasteless. B- | Michael Cheng

Key songs: “I Can Only Stare,” “As if,” “I Can’t Stand You Anymore,” “I Know Not to Count on You,” “Rule Number One”

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