Sleigh Bells have changed. I still remember the afternoon that my friend introduced me. "It's like a pep rally for gladiators", she said, laughing, pointing me to the self-titled EP, "their cover looks like Jimmy Buffett but their Myspace says they like Korn". It was a reasonable introduction, effortlessly embodying the dichotomy that was Sleigh Bells from moment one. There's Derek, the smirking pair of sunglasses behind which rises a tidal wave of noise. Screeching guitars, pummeling bass, and unforgiving mixing techniques all abound. Then there's Alexis, the psuedo-adolescent spokeswoman slash psychotic cheerleader, egging on the chaos as it culminates. Sleigh Bells introduced themselves with Treats, an album with 999 ways to reinvent fun with zero idea of how to retain structure once the fun was found. Sleigh Bells were a sound, not a business model. The biggest surprise of all, perhaps, was that they somehow managed to crank out two more totally awesome records, each one showing significant growth over the prior one, without much change at all to the model. But on the far side of 2013's Bitter Rivals, it was time to put that Sleigh Bells to death. "That guy who made Treats would hate Jessica Rabbit", Derek told Rolling Stone a few months ago, regarding the new album. Listening to the band's fourth LP, Miller's comment is heard far and wide. This is not a record made for the attention deficit Bling Ring fans of the past. Rather, this is a statement record made in massive strides, one that puts the band in a new arena of artistic prowess, and gives some serious character development to their Letterman narrative. On Jessica Rabbit, the dichotomy of Derek and Alexis forms like Voltron into a mystical and ravenous creature. It's simultaneously the most challenging and inviting thing the band has given us yet, and it's essential listening for those who need a new soundtrack for fighting their demons.
If you look past all the crunch and gristle of the Sleigh Bells sound, there's actually a pretty well articulated narrative cycle from the band's first album to their fourth. The bloodthirsty youth of Treats is overshadowed by the darkness of Reign of Terror, where the bounds of vigor are challenged and even crushed a bit. Then with Bitter Rivals, the secret to retaining that vigor is discovered through dualism, creating a divide between one side and the other, while recognizing the need of the other for survival. But as Derek and Alexis have discovered, that type of solution only lasts for so long. Under this method, you are only as strong as your demons, as they come at you each and every night with equal power under dualistic thinking. There has to be another method, a higher understanding of self with a more humble vision of the body. They began this journey with one-off track "Champions of Unrestricted Beauty", which led the new album by almost a year. But with Jessica Rabbit, they take the core elements of self-love and forge a weapon, the kind that ends a battle instead of just fighting one.
With the new record, Sleigh Bells are striking out on a handful of accords. While managing a new approach to their battle scars, all soundtracked by a more fleshed out production, they are also releasing the album on their own label. The name, Torn Clean, couldn't be more appropriate. A minute and a half track of the same follows opener (and lead single) "It's Just Us Now", hinting at the melodies we'll later hear on "I Can Only Stare" without giving away any of the repose. On "Torn Clean", the spirit of Sleigh Bells is finally alone in a dark room, no longer in the thick of boom and bust and no longer thriving on a tug of war just to feel. This is the place where Sleigh Bells choose to strike out on their own and release the record they've lived every moment until now prepping for. Thankfully for everyone involved, it's just the very statement record it needs to be.
At fourteen tracks, Jessica Rabbit somehow feels massive compared to any prior Sleigh Bells release. Even at the peak of their metal phase on Reign of Terror (so metal, in fact, that they toured with Liturgy in Florida), Sleigh Bells don't seem to overcome the monumental scope they capture here. The secret is that it's not just noise. Jessica Rabbit has shape and emotion, watching its central characters shift and grow as the narrative goes along. There are perilous ups and savage downs, and everything in between, but by the end, the band suggests a solution to the divisiveness that even they have fell victim to in the past.
One of the great enablers of this transformation is the balance of powers between Derek and Alexis on this new record. At the detriment of all the hook-addicts looking for another Treats, Jessica Rabbit gives us Sleigh Bells as songwriters, where Derek's production serves largely to forward Alexis's sterling dash for the horizon. Singles like "It's Just Us Now" and "Rule Number One" show off fantastic shape and scope while maintaining a vision of bloodlust as grandiose as the band have ever had. Elsewhere, the album's most eccentric numbers like "Crucible" and "Throw Me Down The Stairs" are adventures in production that challenge the listener to envision a Sleigh Bells outside of traditional limitation. But this great scatterplot is tied together brilliantly by a handful of interludes, where Derek backs off of the controls and Alexis guides the listener forward with intensity like a captivating (and a bit frightening) muse.
Without spoiling too much that you can dig into on your own, there's a particularly great moment between "Crucible", "Loyal For", and "I Can Only Stare". Here, Alexis begins the trilogy by narrating an unspeakable challenge. Derek's bombastic track switches tempos and time signatures, and alternates dominance between shredding guitar and massive synthesized horn sections, while Alexis plays Joan of Arc, taking the banner of her will to the grave. But the loyalty is subjective, as she details on the subsequent number. "I'm loyal for... I'm loyal for now", she sings. There's so much in that pause, that you can't help but think it out loud. Loyal for a cause? No, loyal for a time. There is a time and a place, and there is dedication to self, which sometimes leads to letting go of loyalties so ingrained in your thoughts and being. This is where Alexis goes on "I Can Only Stare", where the old guard is put on the funeral pyre. In perhaps the best song on the record, she lets go of the battle, protecting her heart and walking away where need be, not falling for the provocation.
Sleigh Bells' fourth outing is, more than anything else, complex. It doesn't shy away from a complicated main character, or a massive library of sounds. For both of these, the band deserves massive credit. With three records behind them on Mom + Pop, chock full of stadium-ready rock anthems, Sleigh Bells could have chosen to ride out the escape clause for forever. But instead, with Jessica Rabbit, they give their listeners a higher calling. It might be one that isn't understood on first glance, but with time and repeat listening, it makes itself evident as perhaps the most complete and mature outing the band has given us yet. If this is what freedom and growth look like for Derek and Alexis, then I don't miss the salad days at all.
Jessica Rabbit is out this week on Torn Clean, the band's own label. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl - the physical art is gorgeous. Sleigh Bells will tour in support of their fourth LP, and they stop by Seattle on 11/19. As it should be, the Neumos show is sold out, but you can find more info on the event here.
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