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Album Review: Broken Bells

July 2, 2010

Broken Bells – 2010

Welcome to the very first in my series of album reviews covering Austin City Limits Music Festival 2010 artists!  Obviously it’s July, and the festival isn’t until October…but there’s no better time than the present to acquaint yourself with the bands who will be performing so you can plan your schedule and/or make yourself an ACL Fest mix to console yourself if you’re not able to attend.  So be on the lookout for the next three months for more album reviews discussing Monsters of Folk, Gogol Bordello, Yeasayer, The xx, The Temper Trap, Mayer Hawthorne, Two Door Cinema Club and more.  (Also, come back early next week for my concert review of tonight’s Everclear show.)

This week I’m writing about Broken Bells, the collaboration between James Mercer of The Shins and producing dynamo Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) of…well, of lots of things, including the infamous Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley, and the Gorillaz’s Demon Days.  Broken Bells presents an opportunity to unite Mercer’s indie songwriting sensibilities and the dynamism of Danger Mouse’s electronic prowess into something truly remarkable.  After all, these two have some pretty serious credentials that didn’t go unnoticed when it was announced that they’d be working together.  Both Mercer and Danger Mouse have pop culture relevance, with The Shins’ big moment coming courtesy of Zach Braff and Danger Mouse having been one half of the pair to introduce the stunning and brilliant “Crazy” into the world.  There have been so many genre-crossover collaborations in recent years that it’s no longer a surprise when artists from different musical backgrounds collaborate, and so, all of those factors set the scene and expectations for Broken Bells’ debut.

Sure enough, when the self-titled album begins with the single “The High Road,” you taste a little piece of that promise.  “The High Road” feels familiar even upon first listen – it’s comfortable like you’ve heard it before, and that’s for a couple of reasons.  Obviously Mercer’s voice is recognizable, but it’s also a very modern song, with the electronic beeps and slides placing it easily in the current musical landscape.  The melody and chorus are dramatically catchy, blending acoustic guitar and piano into an airy atmosphere that showcases Mercer’s vocal range beautifully.  All of this is a testament to Danger Mouse’s skill as a producer; in the wrong hands, these pieces might not be so compelling.  With Danger Mouse at the helm, “The High Road” sounds both fresh and nostalgic, kind of like “Crazy” did, except in an authentically indie style.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t quite as terrific as “The High Road.”  Some of the songs just feel a little lost – kind of in between what The Shins offer and what Danger Mouse is capable of.  That’s not to say it’s bad at all; we’re dealing with some pretty talented musicians in the first place, so the songs don’t falter, they just don’t rise to the level you might have expected.  “Vaporize” and “Trap Doors” feel like a pretty good indie songs that reminisce in the ’70s, but don’t have the Big Hook.  “Your Head Is on Fire” sounds a LOT like Neon Indian at first before blending into an enjoyable, spacey electro-acoustic number.  “October” flirts with “The High Road” territory, coming satisfyingly close to its magic thanks to the background vocals, instrumentation, and Mercer’s plaintive voice.

Broken Bells does provide another big bright spot and it comes in the form of “The Ghost Inside.”  Mercer uses his considerable falsetto skills in a Prince-meets-The-Shins moment that is probably the most danceable moment on Broken Bells.  Among the several trippy and hazy songs on the album, “Citizen” is the most lovely.  It’s bittersweet and romantic in a very simple, charming way.  The album closes with “Mongrel Heart” and “The Mall and Misery,” which find the duo far more focused and indie-pop oriented than any other songs on the album – a rewarding conclusion to the rest of the tracks.

Overall, Broken Bells offer a lot of elements here, and it’s all nice.  Occasionally, those elements come together in a really unique and irresistable way.  Even when it’s not irresistable, it’s worth hearing, if only so you can later be a witness to the inevitable growth that the relationship between Danger Mouse and James Mercer will yield.  Pick up this album and then watch Broken Bells play on Friday of the ACL Festival.

One Comment leave one →
  1. seanningham permalink*
    July 2, 2010 5:04 pm

    This really is a good album. I just prefer to listen to it when the songs pop up on shuffle. The collaboration is rife with potential, I just think the album didn’t come together all that well.

    I’m looking forward to seeing them live, though. They’re great artists, and that usually has a way of creating a more favorable opinion.

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