2010’s Treats delivered on its title; Sleigh Bells married abrasion and melody across a bite-sized cavalcade of anthemic esotericism. Noisepop, candustrial, mathcore - whatever you want to call it, it was a blast, and unpredictably influential. Complemented by Crystal Castles’ sophomore II, together they demonstrated that applying metal and hardcore strictures to a synth pop chic could click, and has arguably informed the likes of Grimes and CHVRCHES in their own aesthetic heterogeneity. Unfortunately one of Sleigh Bells’s copycats was Sleigh Bells, as their follow-ups Reign of Terror and Bitter Rivals – though perfectly fine – intimated an irreconcilable struggle between refurbishing their irreverence and kineticism, and expanding on their repertoire of ideas. When you innovate on your first attempt – when you reinvent and redefine the parameters of artpop without pretext – an identity crisis is almost inevitable.
‘It’s Just Us Now,’ Jessica Rabbit’s opener and third single, equips sonar blips, as if probing for that forgotten kineticism, and oh yeh there it is. Guitars stomp and percussion growls. Sardonic gibes about the “real thing” and “believing in decency” circumnavigate the fatalistic refrain “And when you die/I wanna die, I wanna die with you.” The bombast is purposeful, mendacious, and just a little bit psychotic – in a cool, fuck-you-patriarchy kinda way.
The Jessica of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? infamy is both a literal and figurative caricature, a singularity of unflappable elegance, submissive sexuality, and feverish petulance that encapsulates the absurdity of male reductionism. The comedy of her on-the-nose two-dimensionality isn’t bad, it’s just drawn that way. In our epoch of manic pixie dream girl idealisation and “crazy ex-girlfriend” flippancy, Jessica is grotesquely salient, and Alexis Krauss calls us out on it. Jessica Rabbit invokes concurrently the deadpan nihilism and belligerent misogyny of its femme fatale eponymy; Krauss’s narrator presents a double-edged pastiche of sordid male fantasy and compartmentalised ruthlessness with teeth sharper than the amorphous tigress of the cover art.
Assuming the perspective of this obsessive parody with self-conscious disdain, Krauss discombobulates, reprimands and savages both her nebulous, wronging lover and the cultural hegemony that enables him. Judge, jury, executioner. On ‘Baptism By Fire’ she declares martial law; “if you forget about the rules of the game/you’ll remember pain.” This is love and lust and possession represented in an eat-or-be-eaten paradigm, and after fourteen caustic brush strokes the final picture is of passion so vampiric that it eviscerates everything. The Frankenstein’s Monster of persistent objectification turning on its creator. The album’s channelled spirit is very much riot grrrl; not only in its vehemence, but in the empowerment of its defendants. ‘Crucible’ is almost an emancipatory tonic for girls repressed by systemic misogyny. The repeated insistence on “getting better” could be subverting male dismissiveness, but it could also be entirely earnest. With chantalong, contagious verve, the agitation is inflected by positivity.
This buzzed suffusion of ideas and sizzling ascerbation boils over into Jessica Rabbit’s musicality. As well as distilling Krauss and Miller’s well-documented veneration of stadium rock histrionics, “pop you can’t get out of your head” (to quote Strauss), and 90s R&B; at times Jessica Rabbit echoes the bloom-and-bust truncations of post-rock, serviced by Sleigh Bells’ continuous infatuation with the stability of hip-hop, mid-tempo beats. With production input from Dr. Dre’s regular producer Mike Elizondo, these rhythms resonate with clarity and confidence, empowering Sleigh Bells’ structural attention deficiency as ambidextrous weapon rather than tangled hubris. The portfolio of sonic tidbits from ‘Lightning Turning Sawdust Gold’ mutates into orchestra, a legion of hooks comprising overdubbed guitar, contaminated keyboards and relentless time shifts. Inversely ‘Loyal For’ retreats into gothic strings and serrated drones, obviously as the breather for their notoriously manic live gigs to soak up the abstruse ambience and nurse those purpling bruises. ‘Unlimited Dark Paths’ is a stand-out, as machine gun patter attenuates a rattling EDM/nu-rock duet that baffles, distorts, and objectively shouldn’t work; but ballet over the precipice of incongruity is when Sleigh Bells soar.
Clean, lean, and impassioned to the edge of malice; both the beauty and the devil are in the discord. Jessica Rabbit is a fucking great feminist-punk record, one of the pop highlights of the year, and the best thing they’ve ever done.