In the ‘90s, we took soft-loud dynamic shifts for granted, since everyone and their kid brother thought they’d written the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Now that soft-loud dynamic shifts are out of fashion, we only take Sleigh Bells for granted, a loudness-obsessed novelty band who were supposed to disappear after their debut or something. Instead, they’ve already gone on to make more great records than The Jesus and Mary Chain ever did, all sonically distinct. There’s the confetti-cannon assault of acclaimed 2010 debut, Treats, 2012’s more plodding metal expedition, Reign of Terror, and—my vote for underrated rock album of the decade—2013’s tightly wound, claustrophobic candy shot Bitter Rivals, which tempered the dissonant excess with classic Little Eva melodies, and they knew it: “I’m bringing gummy bears to the electric chair,” sang resident marketing genius Alexis Krauss on the album’s final line.
Yet the expansive Jessica Rabbit is further away from these three albums combined as any of them were from each other. Whereas they already mimicked their mentor M.I.A.’s true freedom from genre constraints as rock/trap/pop whatevers, on the duo’s fourth album they stretch their sound so far it sometimes snaps: the blast-beat happy “As If” is more kvlt than anything on Reign of Terror, and the Annie Lennox arena-pop ballad “I Can Only Stare” has no guitar whatsoever. The closest aural cousin to “Crucible” is Girls’ Generation’s K-Pop classic “”I Got a Boy. But several songs act as palate-expanders, traipsing the uncanny valleys inherent in lurching tempo changes (“It’s Just Us Now”), prog-like suites (“Unlimited Dark Paths”) and miniatures bridging one stuffed setpiece to the next (“I Know Not to Count on You”).
At only 43 minutes, the album can take a few listens for adjustment. Like no other rock in 2016, Jessica Rabbit is rife with worthwhile whiplash, with some of Derek Miller’s best riffs no longer taking center stage in front of the songwriting, even on a squelching juggernaut like “Throw Me Down the Stairs.” Once you’ve run its exhausting cycle through your cortex a few times, you can establish that the interlude “Loyal For” returns in the theme for “Unlimited Dark Paths,” that “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” is their most straightforward pop tune since “Rill Rill,” that “It’s Just Us Now” isn’t frustrating to listen to but energizing.
Arrhythmic and ill-fitting flaws in the first eight tracks evaporate almost altogether, and the trickier second half eventually falls into place around multipartite showstopper “Rule Number One” as well. Krauss has never sang this well on anything she’s done previous, and her increasing contributions to Sleigh Bells’ songwriting have turned their chants, riffs and party tricks into songs, period. And you have to love a band who believes in their slogans: They’re determined to stand on their toes ripping stars down, and they’re proud of themselves. But also: Pop Rocks and Coke make your head explode.