>Album Review: "Broken Bells" by Broken Bells


ring them belles

I have always been a Danger Mouse fan. I have never been a Shins fan. So when I heard that Danger Mouse recorded an album with the Shins guy, I was all like “ehhh I dunno, man” and decided not to listen to it.

But then I listened to it and realized that, hey, it’s pretty good and I like it! Man, what a twist.

See now, I was embellishing a bit when I said “I have never been a Shins fan.” What I meant to say was “I heard a few of their songs here and there, wasn’t crazy about them, and made a concerted effort to not bother with any of their studio releases as a result. Also, fucking Garden State, jesus christ.” Which, you know, is a completely unfair judgment. And now I’m thinking – if James Mercer is just as bearable on all those Shins albums as he is here, maybe I should give them a chance? Yes. Maybe I should.

I mean, I could say Danger Mouse is the only reason I like this record, but that wouldn’t be right either. Mercer’s voice is all over this thing, for one. I always pinned Mercer’s vocals as too introverted and dull for my tastes (“New Slang,” for one, which features one of the most bored vocal deliveries I have ever heard), but on Broken Bells he really sounds like he cares, which is a definite plus. He and Danger Mouse make for a surprisingly compatible duo: Mercer writes a bunch of pretty, mournful low-key tunes, and Danger Mouse bathes them in the atmospheric electronics that are his signature. The best thing I can say about Broken Bells is that it reminds me of my personal favorite DM production, Gorillaz’ Demon Days; like that album, it indulges in a sweet electronic haze, but doesn’t sound meandering or self-indulgent.

At least, for the most part. Some of the songs on Broken Bells‘ second half don’t thrill me too much (a little too Shins-y, I guess?). But there are a lot of cool things going on here. My personal favorite track would have to be “Your Head Is On Fire,” which somehow manages to evoke all the splendor of a Pet Sounds instrumental without being completely obnoxious, a nearly impossible feat nowadays. There’s also the cool dark electronics of “Vaporize” and “October,” the expansively pretty opener “The High Road,” and “The Mall & Misery” which manages to beat Phoenix at their own sordid little pop-rock game.

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to Broken Bells‘ big hit single, “The Ghost Inside,” which I was not fond of upon first listen but I now accept as a decently funky track. Here is my thing: I have a real problem with indie rock white dudes trying to be funky. I think it is a stupid, obnoxious trend that needs to end as soon as possible. Not that I don’t think white dudes can be funky – if the Bee Gees can, who can’t? – but in recent years it sounds to me like a mocking, self-important stab at relevance by a bunch of clueless white-boy Prince fetishists. It’s silly, empty posturing. So when I first heard Mercer’s over-the-top falsetto on “The Ghost Inside,” my immediate reaction was to pause the track, rest my face in my hands and squeeze until I went numb. But soon I realized, hey! It’s pretty much a Gorillaz song! And that falsetto, Damon Albarn does that a whole lot, doesn’t he? So it would be pretty hypocritical of me to demonize “The Ghost Inside.” It’s good, and it’s the only song on here featuring Mercer’s funkmaster highvoice, so I can’t get too mad at him.

So there you are. I like Broken Bells. You will, too, if you like Danger Mouse. And the Shins, I guess. I wouldn’t know.

As for the “I hate funky indie rock dudes,” that is a subject that will pop up again in the near future, I can assure you. Whether you like it or not.