Broken Bells’ “Broken Bells” (2010) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-04-04 21:21:23. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

Having never heard a Shins album (or even as much as a thirty-second preview clip of a Shins song), I came to Broken Bells with no expectations or preconceived notions of how it should sound.  To be fair, that isn’t entirely accurate.  Seeing Danger Mouse’s name in the mix made me wonder just how experimental, or just how “far out,” this would be.  When my wondering gave way to actual listening, I found something I hadn’t expected.

Simply stated, Broken Bells is a beautiful collage of influences finely knit together with unique modern qualities that set this record distinctly apart from the jurisdiction of terms like “retro” or “derivative.”

Still, never in one album have I found such a wide range of interesting influences.  Here and there, a pinch at a time, I have perceived subtle flecks of styles from the Beach Boys to Elliott Smith to Weezer to Phantom Planet and back to the Bee Gees, or perhaps the Scissor Sisters.  As was the case with his collaboration with Beck on 2008’s Modern Guilt, Danger Mouse’s more synthetic sounds and beats are finely balanced out by the more conventional instrumentation and sensibilities of the Shins’ lead vocalist and guitarist James Mercer.  Between the two, Broken Bells is a celebration of many sounds that have come before, newly contextualized and altered here to create something new, something all their own.

This is also the rare record that only gets better as it stretches out.  Without question, the first two tracks are the standout efforts of the album.  That being said, the album does lag a bit after them, particularly after “Your Head is On Fire” fades out.  However, as the second half of the album kicks off with “Trap Doors,” it is only onward and upward from there.  By the time “The Mall & Misery” closes the album, it would be difficult to deny another go-round kicked off by lead single and opening track “The High Road.”

Broken Bells' self-titled debut (2010)

Broken Bells' self-titled debut (2010)

“The High Road” is an excellent choice for leading off the album, as well as representing it as a single.  Danger Mouse’s synthesized sounds somehow manage to appear random while obviously being the result of a very purposeful pattern.  Under all the layers lies a fairly straightforward piano ballad, a simplicity that is realized in the stripped-down outro.

From the piano and vocal fade follows the acoustic and vocal intro to “Vaporize,” another standout track on the album.  This is where Broken Bells start to lay out some of the themes that will follow in the songs to come.  As Mercer sings,  “Common fears start to multiply; we realize we’re paralyzed.”  He continues, “It’s not too late to feel a little more alive.”

What an excellent lyrical anchor for an album that is all about shaking up the format.

“Your Head is On Fire” is a particularly fascinating track.  It kicks off with instrumentation and a vocal arrangement that strongly conjures seventies Beach Boys (my favorite!), with a particularly heavy emphasis on sounds characteristic of Dennis Wilson’s solo effort Pacific Ocean Blue.  By the time the acoustic guitars strum in, the song proceeds to a second movement, but it does return for one more retro romp in the outro that would have felt right at home on SMiLE.

The following two tracks — “The Ghost Inside” and “Sailing to Nowhere” — carve out a clearer idea of what the Broken Bells sound is going to be.  Although they are strong tracks, they are the sort of fare you might expect in the half to three-quarters swampland of your typical record.

Instead, Broken Bells comes alive with new vitality in that region, kicking off with the steady beat and buildup of “Trap Doors,” followed closely by the multi-movement “Citizen.”  The latter peaks with an essential question: “From the moment that we’re born, ’til we’re old and tired out: Do we ever know?”

The opening piano riff of “October” may conjure Phantom Planet’s “California,” but it quickly progresses into the multi-vocal attack that Broken Bells have asserted as their own throughout this record.  And the pace isn’t lost on the low-register vocals of the next track, the beat-driven “Mongrel Heart.”

The aforementioned “Mongrel Heart” blends seamlessly into the album’s final stop.  “The Mall & Misery” is an exercise in perfect timing, another gorgeous mixture of beautiful acoustic guitars, lush harmonies, and a bed of beats and other synthesized sounds.  “Use your intuition; it’s all you’ve got,” Mercer declares.  Every lyric resource on the Internet seems to disagree with me, but I read the refrain as “I know what I know will not fill a thimble.”  I won’t even share what the misconception (?) is; I’m quite attached to what I’ve heard.  At the close of the stylistic odyssey that is Broken Bells, what a fitting final thought.

All in all, Broken Bells’ self-titled debut is a sharp, vivid album that presents a series of interesting lyrics and sounds mostly by way of tight but thoughtful little pop songs, the pieces which work together to form a greater whole.

And that’s more than enough to hook me.

“Run” (Snow Patrol Cover)

Originally posted 2008-11-15 23:45:09. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Greetings from the other side of the midnight chimes — this is your latest (and late) Laptop Session!  Tonight, I bring you a new band to the sessions… Snow Patrol.  Specifically, this is “Run,” the seventh track of their 2003 album Final Straw.  This album was first recommended to me by then-fellow Staples Copy Center employee John Fortin, after he heard the Chris, Jim, and Becky album Live in the Studio.  He said, based on our album, he thought I might enjoy the band.

At first, I liked the album, but I wasn’t crazy about it.  It became one of those albums you go back to every so often, and over time, I grew to like it more and more.  Recently, as I went back to both this album and their subsequent one, Eyes Open, I fell in love with the songs of Final Straw.  The next album is solid, but lacks the hooks and flairs — really, the strength of individual tracks that are great and stand on their own — of the 2003 release.

My sister has also become a fan of Snow Patrol, so I hope that she gets a chance to read this post and check out the video.  Jaime and I have fairly divergent tastes in music, but we have found much more overlap in the past few years — we can especially agree on the awesome-ness of Ben Folds and Elliott Smith!  We actually both had a similar reaction to the new Snow Patrol single, “Take Back the City.”  Specifically, we were hesitant about the new album based on the strength of this track.  I can’t speak for her, but I know that — for me — the song seemed a bit forced at first, as if they were trying to make a hit single that could climb the charts as well as their last big hit, “Chasing Cars,” did.  Really, though, what was most off-putting to me was what I initially interpreted as being a line — “God knows you’ve put your life into it tons.”  Tons?  Really?  Is this the poetry I’m rushing to the store to purchase?

Well, those of you who know me will check this off on the list of times that I misinterpret something due to an accent.  (Stories for another time…)  The line is really “God knows you’ve put your life into its hands.”  Lead singer Gary Lightbody’s Irish accent through me off.  And, while I’m in a confessional mode, can I also admit that one of the factors that has always prevented me from entirely liking the band was the way Lightbody sings?  Yes, it’s true… It took me until a few weeks ago to research and discover that they’re an Irish band.  How I didn’t figure that out before is beyond me!  But, now that I know, I’ve been going through a Snow Patrol renaissance of sorts.

Their 2008 release, A Hundred Million Suns, is — in my opinion — their best work since Final Straw.  I was hesitant to buy it at first, based on their 2006 album and the aforementioned single.  But, I’m really glad I did buy it.  The opening track “If There’s a Rocket Tie Me to It” is one of my favorite track ones in a long time.  Track two, “Crack the Shutters,” is one of my favorite songs on the album and would have been my choice for a single (To date, it has reached #9 on the iTunes alternative rock charts!).  Then, track three is the single.  Track four, “Lifeboats,” slows it down a bit and is another of my favorites.  And it goes on from there…

I found it really interesting to read that the band considered this to be a more upbeat and “cheerful” album than previous releases.  I didn’t really interpret it that way, but that could just be my current state of mind.  Regardless, I do agree with their statement that it is their best album to date.

Well, that’s enough ranting and rambling about Snow Patrol for one post!  In other news, I broke down and bought the first season of the Chappelle show, with hopes that Jim will want to watch some of the episodes.  So far, I’ve only watched the first episode, which includes not only my favorite sketch (the Clayton Bigsby, black white supremacist skit) but also the Pop Copy sketch that so wonderfully makes fun of my previous profession as a Staples Copy Center employee!  So, as you see, this post really comes full circle.  It started with a band that was recommended to me by a Copy Center co-worker and ends with me going off to watch Pop Copy!

But, before I go, I should also mention that I have not made my last post of the day.  In fact, there may be as many as two new posts from me in the next few hours.  So stay tuned and come back soon for much more brand new fun on the best acoustic rock cover songs blog in the universe — the Laptop Session!

See you next session!

“Disarm” (Smashing Pumpkins Cover)

Originally posted 2008-02-02 18:15:57. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Jeff Copperthite:

Welcome to your Super Saturday edition of the Laptop Sessions. Time for another band to join the library of the Sessions.

The Smashing Pumpkins is today’s band, and the song is a terrific one from their album “Siamese Dream”. If you have never heard of this album or this band, go out and pick this album up. It really is something else to listen too.

Anyway, the song is “Disarm”, the more acoustically-driven song on the album. I love playing this song and always have. Billy Corgan (SP’s leadman) has a very unique lyric and guitar style, and I hope I did a good job in living up to his incredible talent.

The only minor flub – if I had to be picky – was a slightly incorrect note in the last chorus. I got a little ahead of myself, but caught it before I had to redo the take. Speaking of which, this was take 3. On take 2 I dropped my pick on the last line of the song, and led out a very loud expletive (The killer in…!*&%!!).

As always, check http://laptopsessions.com/ every day for more from Fusco-Moore Productions!

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Jeff’s acoustic cover song music videos are no longer on YouTube, but we decided to keep his cover song blog posts up.  We figured these music blog entries would be good for posterity’s sake and because Jeff always gave such insightful posts each Session.  We hope to see Jeff’s impressive catalog of acoustic rock songs here on the Laptop Sessions cover songs and original music blog again in the future.  But, for now, please make sure to check-out hundreds of other acoustic cover songs from all of your favorite bands here on the Laptop Sessions music blog!

“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (Wilco Cover)

Originally posted 2008-11-18 22:26:46. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

It’s no secret that I’ve been going through a Wilco phase recently.  And, by phase, I mean that I wasn’t really familiar with the band until a couple months ago.  I had read about the band a bit in music magazines, and I had read quotes by band frontman Jeff Tweedy, which I generally found interesting.  So, I finally found a copy of their critically acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album and decided to give it a spin.

And instantly loved it.

Ever since, I’ve been listening to alot of other music, but I’ve gone back to Wilco every time.  In the past two months, I’ve gone on an odyssey to discover as much about them as possible.  This has involved reading Wikipedia posts, skimming music magazines, and browsing through numerous CD store racks and used album bins.  In the process, I’ve found affordable copies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s predecessor, Summerteeth (which is the origin of the song I just added to the members-only section, which you should definitely check out soon!), and their first album, A.M.

Now, it’s not that Wilco is my new favorite band of all-time, by any means.  But there is a certain excitement that accompanies fresh territory, striking out into a land that is unusual and can present unexpected ideas, sounds, etc.  For instance, I learned all about Uncle Tupelo — a band I had heard OF but had never actually HEARD — because Uncle Tupelo, minus one member, became the first incarnation of Wilco.

But, I guess that’s a story for another time.

Suffice it to say that Uncle Tupelo is credited with founding the “alt-country” genre that I didn’t even know existed until recently.  As Tweedy progressed, he became more and more experimental with his music, particularly after the first couple Wilco albums.  He seems like an interesting musical figure to me, as he embodies that rock songwriter ideal; he has made some great music, and from many reports, he can be a bit of a jerk.  For instance, members of Wilco have been essentially summarily dismissed to make way for new musicians with new sounds to bring to the process.  While this may not make for pleasant interpersonal relationships, it has certainly made for some interesting musical variations and evolution in the band.

When I think of this song and this album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in particular, I am reminded, to a degree, of some of the classic albums that have initially been criticized or even rejected by record company executives.  In this case, the hype surrounding the making of the album seems to have only aided and increased its eventual popularity.  Essentially, as Wilco recorded this album, but the powers-that-be needed to make some cuts at the label, so they released the band.  There are several conflicting stories, but the end result is that Wilco got to keep the recordings and rights to the then-new material, going on to another division of Warner Bros. to officially produce and release the album.  This caused a bit of a stir in the record industry at the time — particularly the public perception of the label’s treatment of this fairly longstanding act — and even though I wasn’t nearly as interested in music industry news as I am now, I remember something about this at the time.

The track I chose for tonight is the opening song, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”  For better or worse, my version does not do justice to the studio version, which you should definitely listen to; for that matter, you should definitely listen to the album!  But, when I discovered that Jeff Tweedy does an acoustic version of this song in his acoustic sets, I couldn’t resist.  It’s a great song that sets the tone remarkably well for the album to follow.

I hope you enjoy my version and that you hurry back in the next couple days for Jeff and Jim.

See you next session!