Review: Broken Bells’ “Broken Bells”

Mar 12, 2010 4:28pm

 

Broken Bells is the name of the new duo consisting of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and James Mercer of the Shins.  Danger Mouse seems to be everywhere these days.  Not only is he also one half of Gnarls Barkley, but he also produced Beck’s last album, "Modern Guilt." “Modern Guilt.”  He will be heard later this year again on the much delayed, much leaked album, “Dark Night of the Soul,” his multi-guest-filled collaboration with Sparklehorse. (R.I.P. Mark Linkous. )  Here, with James Mercer, Danger Mouse’s presence is indeed felt, giving us what ultimately sounds like the funkiest, grooviest Shins record ever.  The two men sound great together. Danger Mouse’s hip-hop influence brings the often sedate Mercer out of his shell.  The three Shins albums have been progressively bolder and brighter, so this is a logical step for Mercer. 
The album begins, right off the bat, with a highlight.  “The High Road” is not only the album’s first single, but with its opening 8-bit Nintendo workout and Mercer’s folky strumming, it’s an appealing, well executed fusion of musical styles.   It should get a wide audience and maybe surpass the level of penetration into the mainstream that Mercer has achieved thus far with the Shins. 
“Vaporize” initially sounds like a Shins track until the beat kicks in.  That being said, on that band’s last record, “Wincing the Night Away,” Mercer and company were experimenting with different, newer sonic elements.  (That album’s track, “Sea Legs” was essentially an exercise in trip-hop.)  Although he’s from New Mexico, Mercer has a very strong sixties “British Invasion” influence.  On this track, this influence is evident in the song’s overall tone, vocal harmonies and the driving organ at its center. The production is flashier and more modern, but at its core it sounds much older.
“Your Head Is On Fire” is a woozy, dreamy tune with a bouncing bass line.  Its beginning is riddled with echoing  laser-beam sounds.  Like much of the rest of the album, this song is constantly changing as if Mercer and Danger Mouse are attempting to work in movements.  Tunes switch and tempos shift.  The almost hallucinogenic chorus begins the song before it drops off into a quieter section.  Then the chorus picks up again and the song is over in just over three minutes.  During the song’s refrain, Mercer harmonizes with himself, sounding like a one-man answer to the Association.
 ”The Ghost Inside” shows Mercer’s previously unheard space-funk side, as he puts on an impressive falsetto.  In other places, voices are sped up or switched to a higher tone for an alien-like effect.   This is a strangely appealing song and quite possibly Mercer’s biggest departure from the Shins’ musical style.  One could imagine Danger Mouse’s partner in Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo also doing this track justice.  It’s nice to hear Mercer lightening up his often heavy tone with this playful track. 
“Sailing To Nowhere” sounds like a mournful lullaby interrupted by a garage rock band in a call-and-response formation.  It’s haunting, spacey and spooky, fusing old styles with new technology.  The best part of the track is when nearly all the instrumentation recedes, leaving only an almost ragtime-y minimalist piano line and a sweeping string section. 
 ”Trap Doors” again employs a dreamlike, almost watery sound.  Danger Mouse has become a master of sonic texture.  On here, he’s found a good balance to Mercer’s slightly psychedelic melodies.  The organ somehow sounds both rinky-dink and alluring at the same time.  There’s a ringing guitar which fades in and disappears with gorgeous persistence.
 ”Citizen” has an almost gospel-like sense of importance, but it also sounds for a moment like something Beck would’ve put “Sea Change.”  It’s slow and mannered but so ethereal that it nearly floats off of the track.  It’s captivating and Mercer holds it all together. 
“October” is another highlight.  Like “The High Road,” it has strong hit potential.  Singing over a repeated piano figure, Mercer sings what may be the most melodic song on the record.  It follows the blueprint set by “The High Road.”  Both songs have choruses that consist of Mercer’s heavily multi-tracked voice.  This is an infectious single waiting to happen.  The track is mournful, but it’s got some intriguing lift to it, as well.
“Mongrel Heart” is a slice of upbeat new-wave, Mercer-style.  Yes, there is still an underlying sadness and beauty, and so while it moves comparatively frantically, it is by no means a sunny track in its tone.  It’s more of a moody lament with driving drums, a traveling bass and moog-y keyboards.  In its middle, there’s a section where the track fills with static and gets enveloped by strings, and dramatic, operatic  backing vocals.  A mariachi-style trumpet takes center stage, reaching a tremendous climax.  Suddenly, it seamlessly returns to its original progression.  This track is a little work of great mastery. 
 The album ends with “The Mall & Misery,” which, initially opens as a string and folk-guitar-laden meditation.    Then the beat comes in and it ends up sounding like an impressive  sequel to “Mongrel Heart.” After a swift workout, the album fades off with haunting whistling over a set of organ chords. 
  Throughout these ten tracks, Mercer and Danger Mouse have created an interesting balance.  Mercer’s tunes are haunting and Danger Mouse’s production is impeccable.  On first listen, “The High Road,” may be the only song to really pop.  On the third listen, the whole album will slowly bloom.  This record is a grower and it deserves the time to do so.  I suppose technically speaking this is Mercer’s major-label debut.  Broken Bells are signed to Columbia, whereas all the Shins’ albums were released on the high-level indie, Sub-Pop.  After close examination, I can say that this is a truly stellar, solid collection!  

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