Review: Sleigh Bells, Jessica Rabbit

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Sleigh Bell’s 2010 debut album, the dazzling Treats, changed the way we listen to loud music and sound. Possessing a penchant for distortion and pop, that album answered a previously unknown question: What happens when we parody the loudness war itself? What happens when pop and noise become music? How alarmingly loud can pop be until it becomes something else? Treats is still one of this decade’s best albums because it develops, it works upon an idea until it is left explored to its fullest potential. Treats is both a pop album and a project: in it, Sleigh Bells mustered on a single idea: the loudness war is not that bad per se. Time proved them right.

Six years and three albums aside, Alexis Krauss and Derek Edward Miller have shifted their ideals a couple times since breaking up originally. They replaced guitars for drum machines and drone and incorporated Pantera instead of Pan Sonic into their songs and albums. 2012’s Reign of Terror saw the duo channeling the most interesting and commercially appealing (as well as visually striking) strands of hair metal for their formula. The result was an unexpectedly amusing mixture of twee and Metallica. Things changed, however, upon the release of Bitter Rivals. A classic case of diminishing returns, one could wonder if that formula — that mixture of indie pop with a penchant for the cheesiest nu metal — was starting to wear off. Bitter Rivals lacked identity and cohesion. The duo was starting to showcase clear signs of creative drought.

Jessica Rabbit, the follow-up, doesn’t answer many questions. It still draws heavily on its predecessors: the punk vein is still here; Pantera is still sensed in every sense of the word; Alexis Krauss stills screams at the world. However, there is development: Jessica Rabbit aims at some sort of cohesion. This is a mess of an indie pop album, filled to the brim with ambient interludes and a taste for unnecessary drum machines, but a mess that longs to make sense of itself. This is progress.

Yet, progress compared to Sleigh Bell’s previous output, it doesn’t mean much. By making the noise less apparent and important to the whole album, the duo has focused on making pop songs that dream of being punk anthems. The results are lukewarm: “I cut my hair with a pocket knife”, Krauss says in “Crucible”, and right after that you might as well wonder why the hell the pop punk revival hasn’t lasted longer.

Jessica Rabbit isn’t wholly deficient though. “I Can Only Stare” is the rare moment in the moment when Sleigh Bell’s pop sensibilities meet their ambition, which does not happen often enough. It is also the only song in the album that feels specially accomplished: a perfect mixture of bravado and sadness.

Yet, for most of the time it could be argued that the duo has lost most of its energy and focus. Treats and Reign of Terror were really far from being cohesive releases, but they shared an identity that is hard to find here. Still, Jessica Rabbit has us wondering what is left inside the duo’s collective mind. One could begin to wonder whether Kraus and Miller will ever return to the fine form once developed in songs like “Kids” and even the Pantera-like “Demons”. Again, Jessica Rabbit is a fine example of diminishing returns. It is only a matter of time before ideas start to wear off. “I can only stare”, as they warn us in the best song off the album. It is time to get ready and start acting on it. D