Album Review: Broken Bells

Calling Broken Bells a side-project would be inaccurate.  Side-projects usually consist of a band member with a desire to create music in their singular vision, going off and finding other musicians outside their band to play it with. Consisting of Shins front man James Mercer and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse), it would be more precise to term Broken Bells a collaboration.  Multi-instrumentalist Burton lays down the beats over which Mercer provides his vocals and guitar.  Together they deliver an album of smooth and seemingly effortless tracks; perfect for both cruising in the car on a summer afternoon or keeping a party going early in the morning.

This isn’t the first time Burton has stepped outside the hip-hop world and worked with a rock musician.  He previously produced a string of well-received and successful albums including Gorillaz’s Demon Days, Beck’s Modern Guilt, and The Black Keys’s Attack & Release.  So, it’s no surprise that Burton was able to take James Mercer outside his comfort zone of quiet indie-pop and create an obvious chemistry to produce a quality album.

Broken Bells sets the tone on its first track “The High Road,” with its head bouncing beat and Mercer’s signature vocals that break into a chorus with a cool retro synth that seems like an update of sounds from a vintage arcade game.  This song was also released as the first single, and it easy to see why.  It basically encompasses all the strengths of this album into one song, and right off the bat lets you know what will follow over the next nine tracks.  Following is “Vaporize,” which starts with an acoustic guitar then drops into an up-tempo jam and ends with an added horn section. Along with lyrics like, “common fears start to multiply/we realize we’re paralyzed/where’d it go, all that precious time?/did we even try to stem the tide?” this is one of a few tracks that could pass as a new Shins song, especially given Mercer’s willingness to shake things up on their last album, and more recently revamp the lineup.

“The Ghost Inside” is a track where Mercer successfully goes out on the limb.  Over instrumental funk Mercer sings in a falsetto that could land him on the R&B charts if he one day suffers from an existential meltdown and decides to go in that direction.  While “Sailing Nowhere” is more downbeat and steps into psychedelic territory with its eerie piano, surging cymbal led percussion, and the rainstorm somewhere in the background.

I thought that maybe Broken Bells was too short, running around thirty-five minutes in length and with only two tracks over four minutes.  However, this could be attributed to Burton and Mercer being aware of their combined strengths and knowing when to quit.  It’s rare if they stretch anything out too far, and when they do, know when to rein it in.  Which is evidenced in the last two tracks, which are also the longest on the album.  While they offer the most experimentation, they never reach the point of being difficult to listen to.  “Mongrel Heart” is definitely the most bizarre, but also the most interesting track on Broken Bells.  It sounds like taking acid and playing the Super Nintendo game F-Zero, then being dropped into a showdown at the OK Coral, then back again.  Anyway, it bleeds into the closer “The Mail and Misery.”  Begining with an acoustic and strings it then slowly builds into a synth filled jam with drops of water, a sporadic post-punk guitar and Mercer’s layered vocals.  This is possibly the best track on the album, as it’s always important to finish strong.

It was hard trying to find something negative to say about Broken Bells.  There honestly doesn’t seem to be any downside to this album.  While there is nothing really groundbreaking, and it won’t “blow your mind”, it’s simply really enjoyable.  Hopefully a trend of hip-hop producer and indie singer collaborations aren’t inspired from Broken Bells.  A Timbaland/Ed Droste collab would probably end humanity.

– Ian Lewis

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