Broken Bells -Broken Bells

W

hen this album came out Danger Mouse was arguably one of the hottest producers. In late 2009, Paste Magazine named him the best producer of the decade (2000-2009). In 2004 he released The Grey Album, a combination of a capella versions of Jay Z’s Black Album and Instrumental samples from The Beatles’ White Album. The album led to collaborations with Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, MF Doom, CeeLo Green, Jack White, Beck, and The Black Keys all before eventually collaborating with The Shins frontman, James Mercer as Broken Bells in 2010.

As I began poring over my notes from a few listens to this album to organize my thoughts into a cohesive review, I decided that it would actually be interesting to share my thoughts track-by-track on this one rather than for the album as a whole. So here goes!

The High Road

Immediate nostalgia as soon as the song began I was transported back. I haven’t listened to this album in a long time, but I have listened to The Shins a good a lot recently as I’ve been digging back into my early 2000’s indie rock favorites. So it’s interesting to hear James Mercer’s voice over such interesting production. It’s nearly as surprising as the first time I heard it. Love the background vocals. Interesting that during the chorus it’s really just drums and that weird arpeggiated synthy sound. It’ also odd that the catchiest part of the song is the prechorus “come on and get the minimum.” My favorite part of the song though is the ending/bridge. The vocal arrangement is so damn good.

Vaporize

Crunchy drums, old-school hammond organ. I’m immediately hooked. Ironic that the last song ended with a line beginning with “it’s too late…” and the bridge of this song starts with the line “it’s not too late.” Again another song where the bridge is my favorite part. Love the instrumental section with the horn solo. Also, both songs so far ended on the bridge without revisiting the chorus like typical form.

You’re Head Is On Fire

Danger mouse knows how to find a sound that hooks you. The wood block percussion sound is the backbone of the song and yet so simple. Really only a few lyrics for this song, kind of odd, not as catchy overall. Almost feels like a palate cleanser.

The Ghost Inside

Very rhythmic and staccato until chorus synth part starts, starting the song off with a dancy vibe. Damn, that falsetto is high! Love the claps in the chorus. This is my favorite song on the album, I remember driving around in my 2006 Scion xB blaring this and pushing my crappy stock speakers to their limit, haha. Another great bridge, but not the hookiest part this time.

Sailing to Nowhere

The grinding organ and metronomic cymbal bell sound are almost hypnotic. This song is largely about texture. Weirdly organic sounding but also glitchy and digital, all with an acoustic guitar intermittently gliding over the wash of sounds. Very cinematic ending. Kind of disjointed feeling, but a pleasant listen.

Trap Doors and Citizen

Grouped these two songs together because they are a bit forgettable. I actually had these songs playing and didn’t even take any notes until I realize that we the next track had started. Not songs I’d skip, but not songs I’d seek out either. 

October

Things ramp up here again. Catchy piano sample with simple acoustic guitar. Acoustic kinda disappears when the bass comes in, but the bass is what really drives this song, so I think it works. Stripped down sections are definitely a theme on the album, drawing greater contrast between the intricate production of Danger Mouse. Great backing vocals on the bridge.

Mongrel Heart

A bit more akin to “Wincing The Night Away” era Shins that than Broken Bells, but a great song nonetheless.

The Mall & Misery

Killer electric guitar part. Mostly just drums and an electric piano sample, feels like this one swung more to the Danger Mouse side of things aesthetically. A bit strange as an album closer. It’s a great track that is a bit buried at the end of the album.

HOW Does It HOLD UP?

Not greater than the sum of its parts, but only because its parts are so great to start out with. Often with collaborations like this, I’d rather just have an album of each artist instead of the collab. But, there are some stand-out examples like Calexico/Iron & Wine, Monsters of Folk, and Better Oblivion Community Center who manage to create something new and interesting.

I’m a believer James Mercer and Danger Mouse have done just that with Broken Bells. It is a collaboration that really brings out different sides of each artist and makes for a project that stands on its own, without leaning on the collective clout of their previous work.

Where Are They Now?

As I was preparing to write this, I mentioned that I wanted to do a Retro Review of this album and my friend and The Hot Mic co-founder Aaron pointed out that they had released a new single and apparently there is more Broken Bells on the horizon!

Should You Listen?

If you’re a fan of either Danger Mouse or James Mercer/The Shins, this is likely to be right up your alley. If you’re unfamiliar with either (however unlikely that may be) this is a great look back into a period where minimalist indie rock was beginning to emerge from the aesthetic of lo-fi bedroom recordings and experiment a bit more with production (see Bon Iver’s self-titled release a year later for another great example). I have greatly enjoyed digging back into this album and you should definitely give it a listen or re-listen!

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