Monday, May 24, 2010

Broken Bells

Rating: B

I love James Mercer and The Shins. Friends recommended Chutes Too Narrow for some time before I finally took the plunge and bought it. Then I felt like a jerk for waiting so long. I like Gnarls Barkley, too, though I'm not familiar with Danger Mouse's other work. When I heard of Broken Bells, an album by Mercer and Danger Mouse, I thought it sounded enticing. These sorts of collaborations are pretty hit-or-miss, though. The Postal Service had a strong album, but Bright Eyes' Digital Ash in a Digital Urn was a weaker record. I'm not sure what compels poppy / folky indie artists to collaborate with electronic musicians / producers, but they do. I would prefer a new Shins album, but since I have a lot of respect for both these artists, Broken Bells intrigued me.

I've never been big into electronic music, preferring the immediacy of just instruments and vocals. Particularly I enjoy acoustic music. But Danger Mouse's production isn't too heavy-handed here; he'll throw a funky flourish (as in the opening bars of leadoff track "The High Road") or a drum machine ("Trap Doors") on there, but by-and-large the songs would fit well on The Shins' most recent album Wincing The Night Away. The one notable exception is "The Ghost Inside," where Mercer warbles in a falsetto over synthetic percussion, with a keyboard riff chiming in for the chorus. That description doesn't make it sound good, but it is in fact awesome, maybe the album's best moment. It doesn't sound like anything The Shins ever did, but it shows off Mercer's versatility and ear for melody.

After repeated listenings, almost all the melodies stick in my head, but I can pick out very few of the lyrics. This is intermittently true of The Shins' catalogue; one of the reasons Chutes Too Narrow is my favorite of their albums is that the lyrics are more immediate. Mercer's voice here is almost covered by gauze, just another instrument in the mix rather than a source of emotionalal resonance. That's fine, but it misses on opportunities. "Citizen" has an achingly beautiful melody, but the vocals are so low in the mix and have so many effects that it's hard to make out what he's saying.

Broken Bells is a fine album with several solid tracks and some great moments. In many ways it's better than I expected, but I also don't think it's quite what it could have been.

Buy it from Amazon:
Broken Bells
Broken Bells Official Site

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