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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