Broken Bells – Sounds of The Shins, Danger Mouse
by Brian Willett
For fans of the addictively-catchy indie-pop sounds of The Shins, the news that broke this January – that lead guitarist vocalist James Mercer would be taking a break from the band until at least 2011 – was discouraging, to say the least. However, the announcement didn’t doom fans to an indefinite span devoid of fresh music from Mercer. After discovering that musician Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) enjoyed the Shins’ work as much as Mercer enjoyed Danger Mouse’s productions, the two decided to launch a side project called Broken Bells. And though the two may seem like a bit of an odd couple from a musical standpoint, Mercer and Burton’s debut CD, Broken Bells, sounds more like a match made in heaven.
The opening of the first track, “The High Road,” may make fans of The Shins wonder what Mercer has gotten them into, as it presents a funky, electronic/orchestral riff with no sign of the gentle acoustic guitar that characterized The Shins’ music. However, it doesn’t take long for the guitar to enter, along with Mercer’s smooth, instantly recognizable vocals. While there is a bit of a hip-hop feel on this track (courtesy of the electronic effects and syncopated percussion), there is a distinctively Shins-esque element as well. “The High Road” guides listeners through several seamless genre transitions and is a great way to keep them wanting more.
The next track, “Vaporize,” offers a more familiar sound for Shins fans, as it begins with just Mercer and his acoustic guitar waxing philosophic, singing, “What amounts to a dream anymore? A cruel device…” As the song moves along, it picks up momentum through some slick percussion and lingering organ lines. The instrumentation isn’t overbearing or distracting, though, so listeners can still appreciate Mercer’s frequent drops of wisdom, such as, “Where’d it go, all that precious time? Did we even try to stem the tide?…The longer we wait around, the faster the years go by.”
“Your Head Is on Fire,” the following song, slows things down considerably, opening with plenty of spacey studio effects and chant-like vocals drenched in an echo effect. Those subside, though, as Mercer’s smoothing strumming and singing take over briefly, before a wah-guitar solo carries listeners into a section featuring some great violin playing. The track has an otherwordly feel and unfortunately seems to fly by, ending abruptly.
The next song, “The Ghost Inside,” bears no resemblance to the music of the metal band bearing the same name. Instead, Mercer seems intent on channeling his inner Prince with a verse consisting entirely of falsetto vocals. Merer returns to his regular range for the choruses, which is a good thing, because while he can hit the high notes, it’s not an entirely enjoyable experience. However, this isn’t an unpleasant track, as it incorporates a nice electronic riff and hand clapping throughout. This is the most un-Shins-like track on the album up to this point, and it indicates that Mercer and Burton aren’t one-trick ponies.
“Sailing To Nowhere” follows, opening with a nice acoustic riff and Mercer’s casual and comfortable vocals. And while this at first seems to be a classic singer-songwriter acoustic jam, Burton integrates a lot of funky effects to create a unique and catchy hybrid sound. The track bounces back and forth between a simple guitar and vocal only arrangement to sections that feature a much broader spectrum of sound. The highlight of the track is the extended instrumental section, featuring strings and piano – that carries the song to its conclusion.
“Trap Doors” offers another hybrid of sounds, pairing acoustic guitar with a lot of electronic instrumentation. The track swells occasionally from its quiet initial state to louder, more intense sessions, but Broken Bells keeps it under control the entire time. Despite being relatively calm and slow, “Trap Doors” has a vaguely funky feel, although it isn’t one of the best tracks on the album.
The following song, “Citizen” brings a little of everything to the table – acoustic guitar, piano and slick studio effects. The song has a catchy hook during the choruses, although the rest of the track isn’t overly interesting and feels as though it drags a bit. Of course, even one of the less impressive tracks on this album is still far from unlistenable.
“October” is a slow, funky track that opens with some bizarre synth and a driving bass line. Mercer’s vocals are almost recognizable due to some subtle harmonization. There is a definite hip-hop feel on this one – Burton’s influence here is palpable. Compared to the last two tracks, this one is stellar, and it’s a shame that it falls short of three minutes in length, because it’s very catchy and has a unique sound.
The next song, “Mongrel Heart,” begins with some thin-toned guitar and piano, giving it an odd, ’80s-esque feel. The instrumentation is pretty sparse for most of the first minute, until synths emerge and take over before dropping right back out before the second verse. The song has a dark feel, which matches the lyrics – “Love is turning you out, sliding worry round…you’ll be cut down in the seedy stairway.” This is another track with a unique sound that works unexpectedly well.
The album’s final song, “The Mall and the Misery,” makes it evident that Benson and Mercer still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, as a slide guitar makes itself heard several times during the anticipation-inducing intro, which slowly builds momentum before dropping suddenly into a funky, electronic section that also features some Strokes-like jabs of guitar. The track cruises along at a good tempo, never delving fully into guitar rock or electronica, but walks a fine line between. While it is a good song, it seems as though the band was unsure how to end it, as it drops off and fades out with little warning.
It may sound cliche, but in the case of Broken Bells, opposites did attract. Mercer and Benson bring vastly different backgrounds to Broken Bells, but the result is a unique sound that is original, refreshing and is likely to please both those familiar with the artists as well as those who haven’t heard either prior to this collaboration.