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Words With Meaning - By will-reisman - November 11, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Words With Meaning

Sleigh Bells, the electronic-rock duo consisting of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss, have never been about subtlety.

With their blown out guitars, twitchy, kinetic beats, and bursting tempo changes, the group has always epitomized an outsized, swaggering attitude — a sunglasses at night, bad-ass confidence that evokes their adopted hometown of Brooklyn. These are the guys walking away from a burnt out house with a lit match still in their hand.

On their fourth album, Jessica Rabbit, which came out today, Friday, Nov. 11, the pair has pulled off their most outrageous act yet, although it’s not in the manner the public would expect. Eschewing their incendiary past (mostly), they’ve produced an album of nuance, pathos, and (gasp!) vulnerability.

Instead of the frenzied cheerleader chants and cooing whispers that dominated the band’s first three albums, Krauss sings with a strained, tense register. And, in lieu of the alphabet soup style of lyrics that defined the band’s earlier works, this album has legitimate tales and narratives.

“To be perfectly honest, the lyrics were a complete afterthought for [2010’s] Treats,” says Miller, the band’s primary composer and lyricist. “I was happy to just use vowels — I didn’t give a damn what the words were. Four records in, it was time to rethink the process.”

Miller attributed his newfound appreciation for lyric writing as a reaction to the dark period he experienced  in his personal life during the making of Jessica Rabbit.

“I was pretty fucked up,” says Miller, whose band will play two sold out shows at The Independent on November 15 and 16. “I was not a healthy man. I was not taking care of myself, and I was extremely unhappy. I decided to change my life around February 2013, and committed myself to being healthy and reading a lot and dedicating as much time as possible to Sleigh Bells. I spent a lot more time on writing lyrics, and found that to be very cathartic.”

The differences are telling. Jessica Rabbit — while still boasting gloriously loud guitar dramatics and strangely-distorted elecontric flourishes — is an emotive album that carries more resonance and depth than its forebears.

Album highlight “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” features Krauss pleading in a way she never has before, and songs like “Hyper Dark” and “I Can Only Stare” are dark and emotionally-complex. On “Rule Number One,” Krauss screams “God only knows the hell that I chose/ Ripping down stars while I stand on my toes,” a lyric that is light years from the detached breeziness of popular Sleigh Bells tunes like “Rill Rill” and “Infinity Guitars.”

It’s an example of a band growing into its own, and it was the perfect opportunity for Krauss to shine because her vocals veered on robotic and dispassionate in the first Sleigh Bells recordings. Mixed higher-up in all the songs, Krauss, who composes the melodies for the group, takes center stage in Jessica Rabbit.

“She really goes for it on this record,” Miller says. ”It’s like we have a different singer now for the band.I feel like there is a lot of power in what she’s done, and it just makes me proud to be part of a group with her.”

After producing three albums in three years, Sleigh Bells took equally as long to make Jessica Rabbit. The extended hibernation from  the spotlight led Miller to question the status and importance of the group, particularly in an indie music universe that changes rapidly and quickly discards buzz bands. He said Sleigh Bells received a big boost of confidence from producer Mike Elizondo, who worked with the duo during Jessica Rabbit (Sleigh Bells’ first endeavor with outside help) and who inspired the band to write some of the their best material.

The live response to the new tunes has also been uplifting, Miller says. The group played a series of sold-out shows across America earlier this year, and tickets for their gig at The Independent sold so quickly that they added a second date.

“When you go away for three years, there is a little insecurity [about] coming back out,” Miller says. “You never know what to expect, so to have this reaction has been great.”

Sleigh Bells will play two sold-out shows at the Independent on Tuesday, Nov. 15 and Wednesday, Nov. 16. More info here.