Album Review: Sleigh Bells’ Jessica Rabbit Is a Pleasure If Not Quite a Joy

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Sleigh Bells is a noise-pop partnership between two people that formed in the summer of 2008, when Derek Miller, a former Florida resident and ex-guitarist with the metalcore band Poison the Well, met Alexis Krauss, a former New Jersey resident and ex-vocalist with an abortive teen-girl group named RubyBlue. Miller was waiting tables at a Brazilian restaurant in Williamsburg where Krauss, then Teaching for America in a South Bronx primary school, was dining with her mother. Somehow, a conversation was struck up in which Miller made two things known to Krauss: First, that he was looking for a female vocalist to complement the instrumentals he was producing, and second, that he was not hitting on her. Both statements were true, and soon after Krauss put off her pursuit of a Rhodes Scholarship to work with Miller.

Since Sleigh Bells began, then, as the result of a fortuitous freak accident, it wasn't too shocking that the first fruits of Krauss and Miller's collaboration sounded like a barrage of gleeful collisions. Stacking Krauss's sweet, high keening of motivational mantras on top of massive metal riffs and hip-hop's low-end theory, their hybrid sonics transformed the familiar into the new while remaining loudly, gloriously accessible. This was indie music that could prove its greatness simply by blatantly announcing it, and once the dyad began playing shows a rapturous response from the music press was all but guaranteed. Treats, the exhilarating and exuberant first Sleigh Bells album, was released in May 2010 to acclaim as universal as it was justified. It was a perfect collection that was instantly recognized as such; it was proof that the prevailing system of talent assessment still worked.

“Perfection,” Plath wrote, “is terrible. It cannot have children.” Though fans are eager to hear more of the same, artists are loath to repeat a successful aesthetic: Krauss and Miller's next two albums did not build upon the sound of the first so much as they distanced themselves from it. 2012's mournful Reign of Terror shifted axes, spreading sheets of arena-rock guitar instead of assembling a tower of explosions; 2013's Bitter Rivals, with its forays into R&B, was more cheerful but less cohesive than its predecessors: the sweetness returned, but the mass had receded. Both albums suffered in comparison to their forebear, but that was inevitable: A group born at the top of the world, should it choose to move, can only move in one direction.

So it's a foregone conclusion, then, that Jessica Rabbit, the latest Sleigh Bells album, is not the band's best album. The album continues the prevailing sonic trends of the post-Treats output: more lyrics and less chants, increased eclecticism and a decline in overall cohesion, a greater emphasis on melody and a diminished emphasis on rhythm — more familiar and less new. The key to the greatness of Treats was not its extreme volume, but its absolute commitment to impact and texture: Even turned down, it sounds far louder than it should because the variety of forces applied to the ear prevent it from tuning out. Treats was less an album than a nonstop parade of textures, and its tracks were less songs than unwieldy coalitions of disparate sonics that constantly needed to be mashed, or welded, back into place. By moving away from Treats (as they had to, to be sure) and returning to making songs, the duo is reverting, however slowly, to the more placid indie norms they transcended: Though tracks like Jessica's “It's Just Us Now” or “Rule Number One” prove that Krauss and Miller still have teeth, the general trend continues to favor atmosphere over presence. Krauss's lyrics are more complex than before, but their meaning tends to dissolve in the ambient melodic energy of the instrumentals. She's saying more, but less is getting through.

None of this means that Jessica Rabbit isn't a pleasure to listen to (I wouldn't skip any tracks, but it's hard to remember some of them), but it is to say that the endless jolt of joy first associated with Sleigh Bells is as irretrievable as its time of origin. Without making too much of the parallel, it's interesting how the period between Krauss and Miller's first meeting and the launch of their first album (summer 2008 to summer 2010) coincides with the financial collapse, Barack Obama being elected president by assembling an unwieldy coalition of disparate demographics, and the first and only term in which Obama's party controlled both houses of Congress. Everything was blowing up and falling over, but there was an exhilarating and exuberant sense of optimism as well, and not merely in Williamsburg. If the prevailing system were handed over to people who did their best today and got straight A's, perhaps it could change, could work for everyone. Things have changed, but not for the better, and the lines that stick out most on Jessica Rabbit are the sourly wistful ones. “Holding my breath till my face is blue,” Krauss sings on “I Know Not to Count on You”; she is “sick and tired of the truth,” and it's hard not to believe that what she says is true.