When Brooklyn band Sleigh Bells released their 2010 debut, Treats, their sound felt undeniably fresh. Here was the cheerleader pop of the mid-aughts, songs like Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” and Fergie’s “London Bridge,” but melted down and molded into some new punk-rock Frankenstein as singer Alexis Krauss sang sweetly over distorted, massive guitar riffs. It’s hard not to picture a guitar amp or two exploding during a Sleigh Bells song. And while over time its sound was fleshed out and polished up a bit more, the energy of the band always sustained.
But keeping up the energy isn’t Sleigh Bells’ problem on their fourth effort, Jessica Rabbit. There’s plenty of chaos to go around, potentially too much, as the band turns up its love for grandiose, campy instrumental flourishes. Written and recorded over the course of three years, Jessica Rabbit sounds, at times, like an experimental studio session that just happened to make it to record. Not only does the band zigzag abrasively across the record’s 14 tracks, but it also seems to enjoy structuring the songs themselves in purposefully confusing ways.
Take the opener, “It’s Just Us Now,” which leads with a traditional hard-rock electric guitar riff and bleacher-stomp beat but frequently swerves aggressively into its refrains. Or “Crucible,” which constructs a cacophonous beat of acoustic guitar snippets, handclaps, and what sounds like a weird flute, ultimately playing like someone gleefully fucking around with a sampler for three minutes. “Pop Rocks and Coke make your head explode!” Krauss screams as guitars screech up around her on the song “Rule Number One,” which has the same hookless, sampler-crazed feel.
When Sleigh Bells actually find a groove, they’re absolutely perfect. On the gloomy pop song “I Can Only Stare,” they ditch their guitars for speaker-frying bass and keyboards, and it’s a straightforward, catchy relief. “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” doesn’t stray far from Sleigh Bells’ guitar and drum-machine bread and butter, and Krauss nails the razor-edged hook: “You’re killing me, but I’m killing me too,” she sings with a growl. “I just can’t stand you anymore!” The most impressive thing about Jessica Rabbit is certainly Krauss’s singing, which ditches the layered, cool monotone of earlier albums and actually showcases her range. Krauss often sounds like she’s LARPing as the frontwoman for an ’80s hair-metal band — and she pulls it off, even on the more grating tracks.
Perhaps Jessica Rabbit will flourish in concert, but on record all that relentless experimentation adds up to something that feels mismanaged. Sleigh Bells should either find the middle ground between their earlier work and Jessica Rabbit’s bonkers arrangements, or pull it straight back to their roots. This is a band that thrives most when it tightens up.