2010, Columbia Records
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
You can't blame James Mercer for wanting to take a break from The Shins - or at the very least, to get some distance and perspective on a band that was once touted as "life changing." He kicked-out founding members Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval, moved his crew from Sub Pop Records to his own Aural Apothecary label and pushed back the release date of any potential new material from the band. Geez, just writing out this paragraph outlining The Shins drama makes me sick of the band. One can only imagine how Mercer must feel about this.
But he's one of those creative types, this James Mercer, with a plethora of musical output fountaining out of him. With The Shins mothballed, Mercer needed a new outlet for that meloncholy-sprinkled sense of wonderment of his. Enter fellow Dark Night Of The Soul collaborator Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, whom Mercer met at a Danish music festival in 2004. From this meeting, Broken Bells was eventually born.
Broken Bells sounds exactly like what you would imagine a pairing between Mercer and Danger Mouse would sound like, and this is a good thing indeed. Mercer's rubber band-stretched vocals float plaintively over Mouse's luxurious midnight tempos. Where Mercer nearly toyed (fantastically, boldly) with inorganic rhythms on The Shins' "Sea Legs," on the entire of Broken Bells debut, he's seemingly found a kindred spirit in Danger Mouse, who implores the shin-man to soak-up the sequencing, samples and beats with reckless abandon. The results are pretty damn fantastic, mixing Danger Mouse's looseness with Mercer's dour whimsy into a lackadaisical, relax-colored cocktail.
Indie-folk-hop, if you must.
Danger Mouse and Mercer employ their magic expertly. Their merging here is near-seamless, mixing Mouse's (p)lush orchestrations over Mercer's vocals and acoustic guitar strumming. "The High Road" (the first single off this album) could fool some listeners into thinking it were a Shins song had they not been told ahead of time. Danger Mouse's back beats crawls toward you like a snail with a slow motion circus on it back, while Mercer's peaks and valleys vocals recall the best moments of all three Shins records.
Then comes "Vaporize," with Mercer commanding his vocal range like a canon, lulling listeners into more Shins comparisons until Danger Mouse releases a 21-gun barrage of beats, signaling that the collaboration is well underway: leave your Shins expectations at the door, the duo seems to insist. This album is something new - something transcendent. Nowhere is this more evident, of course, than "The Ghost Inside," with it's Prince-like vocals, cacophony of whirling rhythmic do-dads and Danger Mouse on actual drums (truth be told, Danger Mouse plays "real' drums on most of Broken Bells' 10 tracks), with Mercer's vocals cutting-in midway providing a tether to reality.
"Citizen" recalls the French band Air's more fluid moments, with guitar and keyboard arrangements intertwined around a delicate piano ribbon while a chorus hums in the background. "Sailing To Nowhere" opens with murky, lo-fi carnival organs and Mercer gliding in, underneath, over and around Mouse's hazy framework. It's the most baroque, dreamlike moment on the entire album, and it feels real - beautiful - while ending way too soon. Closer "The Mall and Misery" qualifies as 2010's best song title, and loses nothing with Mercer's kinetic guitar work and vocals. This is easily one of the best songs on the entire album.
And that is saying a lot for an album full of great songs. What could have been perceived as just another novelty pairing ("indie-rocker meets hip-pop tinkerer"), Broken Bells is in all actuality an out-right triumph of substance over style; expert musical output over shallow aesthetics. These songs aren't "The Shins James Mercer meets Danger Mouse." Nah-uh! They are Broken Bells songs, and they stand on their own merits - flawlessly.
Who'da thunk it, right? The merging of the studio knob-twisting of the Gorillaz, Beck and MF Doom producer, and Indie-rock's introspective merry troubadour. On paper, it reads like just another one of those collaborations. But the proof is in the pudding, and Broken Bells sound more like a legit outfit than a fly-by-night operation, thanks in no small part to these 10 songs.
If anything, Broken Bells is surely the most fun a downer can sound like.