Broken Bells – Broken Bells

Broken Bells

Broken Bells

Columbia

2010

Ahh… time to get back to actually writing reviews.  Which brings me to this new release (read: released on March 9th.  New as in the first post since then.).  Now, I’m a decently big Shins fan.  I am not, ny any means, a huge aficionado on the band.  I will not go around telling people stupid things like, “This band will change your life,” like some people named Zach Braff would have.  I do however, have each of their three albums as well as When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return from Flake Music (essentially The Shins before they were The Shins).  And it was with this frame of mind that I went out and bought James Mercer’s and Brian Burton’s project.

I am greatly underwhelmed.

This album is not by any means a bad album.  The songs are thought-out, melodic, and have well-written lyrics.  But Broken Bells is not a good album either.  The songs are not too interesting, the ten tracks feel longer than they actually are, and there are no real tempo changes.  It is tremendously average.

As a warning, I’m going to focus more on Mercer than on Danger Mouse, as I know more about The Shins then anything Burton has done.  I know some of his mashup of The Grey Album, some of his production work with Gorillaz, and his work on Beck’s Modern Guilt.  The last two I never got into.  I though Modern Guilt was boring compared to Guero and I always preferred Blur to Gorillaz.  I also haven’t mentioned his band Gnarlz Barkley, probably because I hate that infernal song “Crazy.” 

But I expected better from Mercer.  Broken Bells doesn’t posses the lo-fi intimacy of Oh, Inverted World, nor the attitude of Chutes Too Narrow, nor the developed surreal quality of Wincing the Night Away.  Instead, it’s devoid of any real characteristics.

The album starts off decently enough.  “The High Road” features Mercer’s talent for melodies.  It’s an infectious ear-worm of a song, which is made even better by Burton’s synthesizers and drums.  However, that seems to be the pattern for each song on the album.  Most of them are mid-tempo to slow acoustic tracks with either too many ideas thrown in or too long to stay interesting. 

Both of these faults are shown by “Vaporize,” the second song.  This even gets the added bonus of the worst sounding drums ever.  They clip at a certain frequency throughout the song.  So, the audience is treated to an annoying, badly recorded percussion track.  It envelops the song so much, that I almost can’t hear the middle of the song, where Mercer’s vocals wash over the song in layered waves.  Which would be a cool effect, if the drums didn’t completely ruin it.

My favorite song would have to be “Sailing to Nowhere,” the fifth track.  It jumps back between a polished recording and one that sounds like it could be a demo.  This is a trick we’ve just seen Spoon do for a whole album on Transference.  On this Broken Bells’ song though, Burton and Mercer create their own sound with the concept.  The song jumps around enough for it to remain consistently interesting.  And out of nowhere (no pun on the title is intended), comes the end of the song.  This great piano melody becomes interspersed with strings.  Really, it’s a great song which would’ve created a great overall sound for the rest of the album.

But this was not to be.  Most of the remaining songs stayed at slower paces, very boring.  I did keep listening, wondering when an actual rocker would come in.

The closest we get to one is “Mongrel Heart.”  And this is track nine.  The second to last song.  By this time, guys, I’m sorry, it’s too late.  It is actually a very good song, and when the hook comes in, one remembers why we’re still listening.  The chorus is supported by the bass, a pounding track which gives way to the molded chaos of white noise.

I’m not why Broken Bells is so mundane.  It could be because neither musician took the project too seriously.  The whole idea was done relatively secretly, so they didn’t have much of a risk.  This isn’t either of the members main focus, as Mercer is the creative force behind The Shins and Burton has a thousand other things.  Maybe they just didn’t care.  However, in interviews (which I’m too lazy to actually look up again and post here – they were probably in Spin magazine or on Pitchfork) both members said that they enjoyed Broken Bells and the freedom it allowed.  They even began writing new material.  So, my original thesis doesn’t make sense. 

Maybe it’s because this is the first album from the band.  The Shins are on hiatus until 2011, and Mercer needed a break from that pressure.  Danger Mouse needed a more creative outlet than just producing other bands’ works.  I’m assuming it could be a mix of these two situations, with both members using this as a vanity side-project.

I realize I’ve been harsh on Broken Bells.  And I know the reason why.  I expect more out of these two musicians.  James Mercer has had three amazing albums in a row.  Danger Mouse is a go-to guy in the music business.  When the two came together, I definitely expected amazing results.  As I’ve mentioned before, this album was not bad.  It’s good for two to three full listens.  However, after that, I’d gladly go back to Chutes Too Narrow

Buy This Album

Official Site

Last.fm Page

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One Response to “Broken Bells – Broken Bells”

  1. […] the Night Away was a maturation that we could all get behind.  Then Mercer fired his band, did a shitty vanity project with Danger Mouse, and has only now just released the new Shins’ album.  Honestly, the best song — the […]

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