Sleigh Bells first introduced their unusual blend of noise and pop to the world back in 2010 with their critically acclaimed debut ‘Treats’. In the years that followed, they released two more albums in rapid succession – ‘Reign of Terror’ in 2012 and ‘Bitter Rivals’ in 2013 – in an attempt to top the success of their debut. Reactions to albums two and three were more lukewarm, and as a result, the band chose to take their time over the next three years to craft their fourth release, ‘Jessica Rabbit’.
Sleigh Bells rose to fame due to their unconventional and distorted cacophony of anti-pop, overpowering noise, and rock samples, but thanks to the law of diminishing returns, the novelty began to wear off. Thus, the band decided on this fourth release to roll back the noise and put singer Alexis Krauss on top of the mix rather than wall off her skilled voice behind blown out samples. One would think that three years of patience and focus to work on that would result in a more mature, developed sound for the duo of Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller. However, one would be wrong. Is it different? Certainly. Is it better? Not necessarily.
Krauss and Miller spent their first three albums consciously or unconsciously subverting traditional pop music by combining it with shredding noise and distorted effects. Miller’s guitar samples also add an edge of rock and roll to the music. Is it pop? Is it noise? Is it rock or punk? It’s none of those things and all of them at the same time, and the only consistent theme seems to be inconsistency. ‘It’s Just Us Now’ maintains a rock vibe throughout, but the abrupt and forced tempo changes in transition from verse to chorus leave them feeling like two different songs entirely. ‘Crucible’ sounds like a pop singer and a rock band practicing two different songs in the same room. Throughout, the juxtaposition of Miller’s frankly uninspired guitar work and the persistence of the pop element ultimately feel disjointed. If you put a discarded AC/DC B-side in a blender with No Doubt, poured it out, and left the blender on, the result would be something like ‘I Can’t Stand You Anymore’.
In a few instances, the genre indecision is glaring and changes on a dime. ‘Unlimited Dark Paths’ has pop/EDM verses with a rock chorus cobbled together from samples that sound straight out of Garageband, followed by a drifting electronic outro. ‘As If’ starts out almost like a metal song with it’s heavy, driving guitar and drum work, but the synth textures feel out of place. Before you know it, you’re blindsided by outright noise; a machine gun blast beat of drum samples overlain with spastic synth arpeggios. It’s a jarring way to end the album. The odd tempo switches rear up again in single ‘Rule Number One’, a bizarre amalgam of Black Keys-like country-twinged rock sampling that devolves into a derivative and out-of-place pop outro.
Clearly the point of this record was to clean up the sound and embrace the pop side inherent in their music. Despite spending three records insisting on rebelling against formulaic pop, that’s where they shine the most, whether they like it or not. ‘Baptism By Fire’ is arguably the most coherent song on the record. It’s poppy, it’s tight, it’s clear, and Alexis Krauss is given plenty of room to make full use of her formidable vocal range and above average lyrical talents. ‘Lightning Turns Sawdust Gold’ is another bright spot with its playful hook and refreshingly consistent rhythm. However, their surrender to palatability has the potential for reaching lowest-common-denominator status at times as well, such as with ‘I Can Only Stare’.
There are also a few tracks on ‘Jessica Rabbit’ that feel entirely unnecessary and should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. ‘Torn Clean’ is a watery interlude marred by pointless, blown out kick drum samples. ‘Loyal For’ is a two minute stretch of dramatics and reverb that goes nowhere and feels unfinished. ‘I Know Not To Count On You’ spends half of its brief two-minute run on a fairly standard EDM build-up that drops into a delicate acoustic verse, yet again feeling like two different songs pasted together.
It’s difficult to determine exactly what Sleigh Bells want to be as artists on ‘Jessica Rabbit’. The music rarely lines up into a cohesive whole, and when it does, it comes across as little more than trite radio pop. Alexis Krauss is an extremely talented singer, but her voice is wasted on the musical mixed bag that carries it. If they want to be a noise band, it’s too catchy. If they want to be a pop band, it’s too noisy. If they want to be a rock band, it’s too overproduced. If they want to be all three, which seems to be the case, we get ‘Jessica Rabbit’, and it’s simply not an enjoyable listen. In the past, when the emphasis was more on the noise, the music made a bit more sense. Now that those louder layers have been peeled away, it’s clearer that the many parts do not integrate well. Like oil and water, they float on top of each other, distinct and separate. ‘Jessica Rabbit’ feels slapdash, the different genre elements sectioned off in the same space, and it’s tough to believe that three years were spent meticulously putting it together.
‘Jessica Rabbit’ is out now on Torn Clean.