Plumbiferous Media

Broken Bells – Broken Bells

Mar 18th 2010
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Broken Bells - Broken BellsBroken Bells
Broken Bells
Score: 57

After putting The Shins on hiatus, frontman James Mercer started a side project with producer and musician Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse), Broken Bells. Their self-titled debut album was released earlier this month. While Broken Bells displays some of the creativity of both of the talented musicians involved, the collaboration’s true potential only shows up at the album’s best points, while the rest of the album is generally (and disappointingly) banal.

After his excellent work with The Shins, the nuanced, quiet power of James Mercer’s voice is unmistakable. Unfortunately, Mercer’s voice only reaches its highest potential at certain points – the first section of “Vaporize” is reminiscent of the best tracks of Chutes Too Narrow, but much of the rest of Broken Bells seems to have accomplished the rather dubious goal of making Mercer’s voice unremarkable. Overuse of vocal effects on a few tracks or a simple mismatch between Mercer’s voice and the musical tone are generally responsible for this, which makes this problem even more of a pity as both are certainly correctable.

Given the artists on the album, the amount of creativity on it is unsurprising. The best tracks come together perfectly to create a strange, stylized and completely unique experience. The most compelling of these is arguably “Sailing to Nowhere,” a purposefully fragmented track, which, combined with the primarily dark, minor chords, becomes emotionally engulfing – not to mention it fits perfectly with the title and lyrics of the track.

Unfortunately, it takes the album until the track prior to “Sailing to Nowhere” to even come together, and the album doesn’t maintain perfection for long. While the first few tracks have great synth and organ lines, they mix fairly badly with the rich guitar, which in turn doesn’t quite match up with the vocals. The percussion is generally centered in its highs, and doesn’t resonate as well as the other lines, and the entire ensemble is roughly shoved together. Much of the later album has a different problem; while the instruments do have a tendency to match with one another more frequently, tracks will often go on for far too long, or be simply somewhat uninteresting from the start.

As lyrics go, Broken Bells is quite good. Mercer has put the same creative energy into the album as he did with The Shins, and, though Broken Bells doesn’t contain any single track quite as captivating as some of The Shins’ best work, many of the album’s tracks are quite interesting, including “Vaporize,” where Mercer asks “What amounts to a dream anymore?” and “The High Road,” where he talks about “the dawn to end all nights.”

Broken Bells is really only a great album in name. That is, it has Danger Mouse and James Mercer on the same album. But while it’s great to finally hear Mercer’s voice again, the album not much more than a mismatched quilt of strong but uninterfaceable styles. Of course, it’s not really a surprise – James Mercer and Danger Mouse really does seem an odd combination – and it isn’t the first time in the past year that a number of musical superpowers have gathered to create an album that sounds, at its core, like a power struggle (see Them Crooked Vultures). Still, Broken Bells probably could have been done better.

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