The UnLive | Album Review: Broken Bells by Broken Bells
Posted on March 05, 2010 by Greg
Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton has had a pretty good run in the 2000s. Most people who know him probably know him best for the single “Crazy,” a massive hit from the first Gnarls Barkley record. People with a bit more indie knowledge will know that his first big break came from The Grey Album, a totally unauthorized splicing of the vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the music from the Beatles’ White Album that swept through underground music circles in 2004. Since then, Danger Mouse has specialized in collaborations, sometimes very unlikely ones. Some have worked great (The Black Keys, The Shortwave Set) and some not so well (Sparklehorse, the second Gnarls Barkley album).
So how does the much-hyped collaboration between Burton and James Mercer of The Shins pan out? Pretty nicely. Sometimes it seems a perfect match, and sometimes an uncertain compromise of sounds. Overall, I’d say more deference is given to Danger Mouse. This is a very electronic album. I miss the off-kilter phrasings and spooky folk edges of The Shins. And a lot of the songs take a long time to develop. I could have done with fewer minute-long keyboard intros. But there’s a lot of excellent material, too.
Here’s my take on the best songs:
Exactly what I was looking for in this collaboration. Interesting electronic sounds, good basic beat, and Mercer’s vocals sound very sharp… dark tones mixed with bright peaks.
Starts a lot like a Shins song and then shifts into Hammond-style organ. Like Mercer is fronting The Charlatans, UK. But it works.
A bright little piano-and-acoustic-guitar-centered gem with nice swelling choruses. Mercer’s vocals dance around effortlessly on Burton’s shifting beats.
Dark vocals and lyrics married to an occasionally childlike Casio keyboard sound create interesting dynamics. An extended chanting/mariachi/static bridge adds unexpected fun.
“The Ghost Inside”
This is the closest this album gets to a Gnarls Barkley concoction. It is also the most fun song on the record, by far. Syncopated electronica beats underscore everything, and Mercer does a surprising Barry Gibb impression that somehow works astonishingly well.
The best songs on Broken Bells are great examples of what a good producer does: he sees the potential in an artist and stretches it, maximizing what they are already good at and pushing them to places they didn’t know they could reach. And on a lot of this album, Mercer has never sounded better. The lesser songs, “Sailing to Nowhere,” “Trap Doors,” “Citizen,” and “The Mall and the Misery,” feel a little too messed around with. They keep shifting tempo and tone, as though the artists are working too hard to sound interesting. But even the lessers have catchy little musical or vocal flourishes that pop up here and there and keep you from tuning out completely. Of the many collaborations Danger Mouse has cooked up, I’d list Broken Bells among the best.
8 of 10
–Greg at The UnCool
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