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.

The Weekend Review: March 2012 Report

Originally posted 2012-06-03 07:59:23. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Wrecking Ball (Bruce Springsteen)

Producer: Ron Aniello & Bruce Springsteen

Released: March 5, 2012

Rating:  2 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “We Take Care of Our Own” & “This Depression”

Diverging from the string of excellent albums Springsteen has been releasing steadily since his return from a seven year hiatus (with 2002’s The Rising), Wrecking Ball comes across as a bunt where his past several albums have felt more like full-force swings aimed at the fences.  It’s not so much that this is a bad album: it is, just as disappointingly, a mediocre album.  Most songs fall into one beat from the opening bars on, often establishing a chorus line that becomes the repetitive chant throughout.  There are standouts, such as the album opener “We Take Care of Our Own” and “This Depression.”  And, of course, the tone and textures of Springsteen’s Americana sound are impressively rendered, incorporating acoustic and electric elements intermittently, as well as choir-style background singers (see: “Shackled and Drawn” to begin with) and other cultural textures (see: Death to My Hometown, itself perhaps a frown of an update to his 1985 hit “My Hometown,” then the seventh top ten hit off Born in the U.S.A.).  Still, these elements are not enough to lift Wrecking Ball into any real sense of artistic accomplishment, nor does it live up to the rock music energy and promise of the Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band performance of “We Take Care of Our Own” at the Grammys earlier this year.

 

 

 

Port of Morrow (The Shins)

Producer: Greg Kurstin & James Mercer

Released: March 20, 2012

Rating:  4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Simple Song” & “No Way Down”

Fresh off his 2010 collaboration with Danger Mouse as the indie duo Broken Bells, James Mercer returns with the Shins to deliver an alt pop/rock punch in Port of Morrow.  From the fast-paced opener “Rifle’s Spiral” to the lead single and album standout “Simple Song,” through three more excellent though more understated tracks, to the second standout “No Way Down” (which, unlike “Simple Song,” requires little warm-up to get up to full speed), and up to the subsequent ballad “For A Fool” and then the quirky, sonically unique “Fall of ’82,” finally arriving at the penultimate “40 Mark Strasse,” there isn’t a clunker in the set.  The final track feels, like so many title tracks throughout history, like a bonus track or a tack-on rather than a full member of the record.  The Shins are certainly guilty of finding a sound and falling into it, destined to draw claims of “the Shins are a good song,” and yet when you like the sound – as I certainly do – it’s difficult to criticize the nine tracks of gorgeous, bright, modern alt rock music that await you on Port of Morrow.

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (2010) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-07-17 12:31:19. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  3.5 / 5 stars

For over a decade, Brian Burton has made it his business to strike up some of the most unique alliances between artists and genres, and the results have, to a surprising degree, been both fascinating and entertaining.

Anyone who knows music knows that one or the other is fairly simple to achieve; any project able to be described by both modifiers is impressive.

You will likely have heard of Burton by his nom de plume Danger Mouse — or perhaps, more anonymously, as one half of Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, or Danger Doom.  If you are one of the few who read liner notes, then you would also recognize him as the producer of recent albums by Beck and the Black Keys, among others.

If you are reading about him here for the first time, then you will most certainly recognize him as an artist who revels in the blending of elements that otherwise wouldn’t overlap under normal circumstances.  It is his affinity for such ventures, an attribute that would, in the hands of most artists, result in a disconnected collection of tracks, that drives and distinguishes Dark Night of the Soul.

First, it should be established that this record is defined by the “Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present” formula (i.e. Danger Mouse on synthesizers and other instruments and Sparklehorse’s multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous on guitars among other analog instruments).  Each track was co-written with a guest artist or band, who then sang the lead vocals.  Film maker David Lynch, who collaborated on the album as a whole, is the only guest to sing lead on more than one track.

By all rights, this should be an effort incapable of cohesion.

Instead, Dark Night of the Soul hinges not on the strength of individual tracks, but rather on the effect achieved by the whole.

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

The record is a multi-faceted exploration of the darker sides of humanity and the human psyche.  The first line of the opener, “Revenge,” refers to pain as “a matter of sensation,” the singer directing his lyrics at someone who has “ways of avoiding it all.”  Several tracks later, “Pain” explores the flip side from the perspective of a man — voiced fittingly by Iggy Pop — who “must always feel pain.”

Other songs cover similar ground, notably the latter half’s “Daddy’s Gone” that serves as a thematically relevant flip-side of sorts to “Little Girl,” which came six tracks earlier.  “Insane Lullaby” asserts that “A good life will never be enough,” echoing and extending the sentiment begun earlier in “Angel’s Harp” that “Though you might be walkin’ tall, everybody got a lot to grow.”  Both of these aforementioned track titles draw on the language of soothing religious and children’s music, diction that is belied by the gloomy content of the lyrics.

The final pairing of the album, “Grim Augury” and the title track (tracks 12 and 13), present the final descent into darkness.  Vic Chesnutt’s voicing of the former is additionally haunting following the news of his suicide shortly after recording the song.  His request, then, that his “sweetie” not sing “this sad song, grim augury” seems a moot point, being as it’s an augury after-the-fact for listeners who waited until the recent official release of the album following EMI’s inter-label nonsense.

Still, Chesnutt’s song is perhaps the most dramatic track on the album, lyrically speaking, as he sings: “I was peering in through the picture window.  It was a heart-warming tableau like a Norman Rockwell painting until I zoomed in.”  The haunting scene which he sees is a bloody one and is imbued with portents of violence; up to this point there had only been emotional turmoil and less physical notions of pain.  Even “Just War” could easily be argued in a metaphoric rather than literal sense.

With Chesnutt, there is no question about the “horrible dream” and the true darkness expressed by the track.

In March of this year, four months before the official release of Dark Night of the Soul, Linkous took his own life as well, reportedly by a rifle blast to the chest.  As much as one might accept on an intellectual level that music should be taken for what it is, separate from context, it is difficult to separate the tragic deaths of Linkous and Chesnutt from their performances on this haunting release. (They are, after all, dedicated to the memory of the two artists.)

It is difficult not to listen to these recordings with a renewed sense of their depth.  To be sure, they are not all depressing, but the closest the album comes to upbeat is the reckless tone of “Everytime I’m With You” or the melancholy of “Jaykub.”

So, in the end, you get what you’re promised from the outset, from the title.  It is a bit more serious, a bit more real than most music is able to manage, and it comes at a high price.