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.