Artist: Broken Bells
Album: Broken Bells
In Brief: 6 solid tracks out of 10 makes for a modest success story. It’s better mileage than I tend to get out of The Shins, anyway.
I’ve never been a particularly big fan of The Shins. I know that statement may seem like blasphemy to a lot of indie rock fans, but despite several attempts to get into the band, I generally found their intentionally economical, no-frills, back-to-basics approach to be… let’s just say less than life-changing. I couldn’t say anything overly critical about the band or their style – I just prefer my music with a few more unexpected flavors in the mix, and I found myself not remembering the songs after an album had passed by. The band’s third and most recent effort, Wincing the Night Away, contained a few songs that did manage to take root in my personal playlists, largely because it was where the group begin to experiment with synthesizers and what might have been intentionally outdated sounds. It was an inconsistent record that seemed to divide a fanbase who liked them just fine before. Seeing as my favorite tracks on that record were the ones where the rock factor collided most effectively with the experimental streak (see “Sleeping Lessons” and “Sea Legs” for the best examples in my book), I wasn’t particularly eager to compare notes with other Shins fans. I know how it can be when I like a band just the way they are, and then they go and taint the purity of their sound, thinking it will win them a wider audience. I didn’t want to have to tell someone else I liked their band slightly better for doing that. But I guess that’s sort of what I’m doing now.
The one constant that I seemed to enjoy about The Shins, even when the musical style or the lyrics didn’t seem to leap out at me, was the voice of James Mercer. Despite being the kind of man who looks gravely serious in any and all video footage I’ve seen of the band thus far, he had the kind of golden zing to his voice that could really elevate a song with an otherwise plain melody or too languid of a tempo. Throw him into something really energetic, and he actually seemed to make it twice as good – one great example being his handful of guest appearances on Modest Mouse‘s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. So while I didn’t think at first that a side project formed while Mercer had The Shins on hiatus would be anything special, I found that Broken Bells, his collaboration with producer/percussionist/mad mashup scientist Danger Mouse, piqued my curiosity more than I would have expected. Mercer’s voice plus beats and synths and an experimental approach? I could think of worse ways to spend half an hour and change.
The funny thing about the Modest Mouse collaboration I just mentioned is that I kind of find myself wishing the name “Modest Mouse” hadn’t already been taken (that band being rather brash and hyperactive and not really fitting the “modest” descriptor). Because throw Danger Mouse and James Mercer together, and you get a collection of rhythmic, vaguely lounge-y indie pop songs that sound quite modest on the surface, making it pretty clear that there’s no intent of showing off for its own sake. They’re a band that quietly hints at wanting your attention, and their music can be easily dismissed as “nothing special” by passers-by until you dig a little deeper into the lyrics and melodies. I certainly dismissed them as merely average at first, being underwhelmed with the mostly mid-tempo songs on their debut record, and not quite being able to shake the leftover image from my experience with The Shins, of James Mercer always trying to warn me that something dire was about to happen. And sure, Broken Bells has its share of downer musings, but as I’ve paid more attention I’ve actually found it to be a defiantly positive record, one that starts from a humble place but that begs the listener not to settle for the status quo. This might explain Mercer’s own restless, which led to his own decision to put The Shins on hold until at least 2011. The guy just wanted to do something different. And I feel like Broken Bells (thus far at least – word on the street is they’re working on a follow-up) has been a side trip worth taking.
1. The High Road
This was the single that introduced the Mercer/Mouse collaboration to most of the world, a thing that seemed unlikely to ever chart due to its decidedly loungey synths right at the beginning and the kind of rhythm track that reminds me of any number of white-boy rock bands trying to sound ironic by employing hip-hop beats circa the late 90’s. It’s a throwback on a number of levels, but a surprisingly smooth one that manages to tread the line between the absurd incongruity of its singer with its style, and the simplicity of a good basic pop hook. The lyrics, from what I can gather, are a humble acknowledgment of the thin boundary between us normal folks and the ones who go crazy or just plain bail out on life, which leads to its central thesis, “The high road is hard to find”. While a bit of a bummer, it sets up a sort of theme for the album, of making the decision to either settle for the status quo or go against the grain.
This one sounds like it could be a Shins song at first, fading in with the simple strum of acoustic guitar. Then the organ chimes in and the drums start to roll and stumble about, and you get something that’s decidedly more groove-oriented. This is a good example of what works best for Broken Bells – embellishing the basic indie pop sound with a bit of programming here, an echo or other production effect there, but mostly just letting the song be equal parts solid melody, catchy beat, and intriguing lyrics. Those lyrics seem to put forth the average “Follow your dreams” mantra at first, but what makes them work is Mercer’s awareness of how easily time slips by and how we can take for granted that we’ve spent our time following someone else’s ideals. As the man on the soapbox, he takes a moment to say “Doubtless, we’ve been through this/So if you want to follow me, you should know/I was lost then and I am lost now/And I doubt I’ll ever know which way to go.” In other words, seize your own day instead of just doing what you think the rock stars want you to do. (This leads to a bit of an unfortunate mondegreen when I could just swear he’s singing “If you want to f*** with me, you should know”, but that’s likely just my problem.) Also, while it’s subtle, I like that the bridge foreshadows the melody of the song that immediately follows this one.
3. Your Head Is on Fire
Despite being the shortest track on the album at a lean 3 minutes, this feels like two songs rolled into one, due to the intentionally abrupt way that it busts in with its spacey, bubbly refrain and then backs off considerably to fill the center of the song with more of a laid-back acoustic rhythm. This bugged me at first – “Hey, I was just getting into that fun groove, why’d you have to go and take it away?” But despite the mood swings, I’ve found the song’s core to be a lush thing of beauty in its own right, with string chiming in at just the right moment and its fair share of quirky, playful synths. Mercer’s making a somewhat cynical observation of a people in denial of the very obvious problems in their lives, from what I can tell – the phrase “Look behind, your head is on fire” denotes, to me, that people are unsatisfied deep down but afraid to look at themselves deeply enough to realize and correct the unhappiness. The song is over as abruptly as it begins, and I sort of love it for that.
4. The Ghost Inside
This one really feels like it could be some sort of alternative hip-hop song from the outset, with the muted guitar strings being plucked and the “chill party” sort of vibe that the beat gives off. Mercer slips into full falsetto here, which has the side effect of slurring the lyrics a bit, but it sounds freaking cool, so I’ll let it slide. The handclaps, the strings and piano that break in during the bridge, and once again, the weird and intentionally dated synths help to make this one extremely memorable – it was the obvious choice for a follow-up single. It’s basically the story of a starlet who sold her soul for a career – the phrase “She gave up the ghost inside” isn’t intended to say that she died, necessarily, but perhaps that a bit of her died on the inside in order to be what someone else expected of her. The bridge hits the hardest: “You call it chivalry, never pull a punch for free/You ever wonder why they had to move on/This phony honor code that puts you on your throne/A double standard you invoke when you want.” Even if you’re not sure what exactly he’s upset about, that’s some pointed songwriting, right there.
5. Sailing to Nowhere
The album breaks from its groove-based approach for a bit of an experiment here, rolling in on a rhythm of 6/8 with a wondering keyboard melody and this occasional fanfare of organs and drums that sound like they were dumped in from a much older recording. Yet there are also solemn breaks that employ piano, strings, and weird backmasking effects, making feel like it’s a weird hybrid between old-school psychedelic rock and new-school indie electronica. On one level, I appreciate the mashup of genres, but on another level, it makes the song feel like it’s flailing about in search of an identity, which means it has the tendency to change thing up ten or twenty seconds after you were starting to get into whatever they were previously doing. The lyrics are mostly word salad to me, so this isn’t one of the songs that tends to stand out in my mind later, at least not for good reasons.
6. Trap Doors
This track, for me, marks the beginning of a mid-album lull that might cause the average listener’s attention to drift to the point where they don’t come back around to catch the brilliance toward the album’s end. There’s nothing overly bad about it – just a slow rhythmic groove with smoothed-out synths that sound like they could have been lifted from a children’s TV show, and a subtle but decent melodic hook from Mercer’s electric guitar. It’s not too far removed from some of R.E.M.‘s experiments on Up, which isn’t the sort of thing that’ll get most people excited, but it floats by pleasantly enough. I’m drawn in by the backing vocals and the overall ambiance and Mercer’s urging to “Fight fire” (no, not fart fire – stop mis-hearing the lyrics, dummy!) and to find “Trap doors to endless wisdom”, but I feel like it’s a bit of a retread, lyrically, of ideas already explored in the front half of the album. I wouldn’t skip this, but I don’t consider it a highlight, either.
Now this… this is skippable. Probably the only track on the album I’d characterize it as such, but its positioning between other down-tempo songs just draws unneeded attention to its languid pacing. It’s the album’s longest track, at four and a half minutes, though it feels like well over five due to its rather plain chord progression, its unimaginative rhythm, and its dull, icy keyboards. production-wise, it becomes apparent later that they poured a decent amount of effort into this one, dialing up the strings and horns later in the song (which are probably also programmed) to give it a dreamy, Britpop sort of atmosphere. But it doesn’t know when to quit, bringing in that dry drum beat after a false ending, and then just taking too long to fade out after that. The lyrics seem rather resigned, telling a nameless “citizen” to basically mind his business and do his best to get along with his fellow man, and questioning “Do we ever know people?” I tend to tire of it too easily to want to give it much analysis.
This song was apparently known as “Float” in its pre-release incarnation, and that’s an apt enough title for its moody, slightly syncopated piano hook, which more or less runs throughout the song, backed by little other than an acoustic guitar for the verses, though beefing up considerably with distorted electric guitar for the chorus, making it a sort of slow-burn rock track. The lyrics seem to cover more ground on this one, but they mostly seem to be acknowledging the value of a good old-fashioned days’ work, acknowledging “There’s no shortcut to a dream” and basically seeming to say that the dream’s still achievable but that it can’t be abandoned just because it’s not quickly attainable. There’s likely a lot more to it than that – this seems to be one of the album’s more fully realized songs, but its placement after two other songs that are also reasonably laid-back means that it, too, runs the risk of not being as noticeable.
9. Mongrel Heart
Here’s where we really dig back into the good stuff, as Broken Bells bucks the trend of ending an album on a reflective note, to instead pull out some of its best up-tempo material in the final act. This one’s got a rhythm that is all kinds of bouncy and cheery, especially with the piano that rings out in conjunction and the wash of “aah”s and “ohs” that the background vocals provide in between Mercer’s lyrics. Yet it’s got a sense of foreboding, as if you’re running from something chasing you. Despite the upbeat-ness of it, it turns out to be one of the album’s more haunting tracks, with the chorus employing an organ riff that feels like it was taken from a haunted house and then sped up. It might be Mercer’s lyrics about specters and demons that get me thinking spooky thoughts, but he seems to be addressing an individual running from the ghosts of a former life, and he’s begging her, “Would it be wrong to clamp down on your racing heart, love?”, but to no avail. The bridge in this one is brilliant, taking a break from the peppy beat to soak our ears in an oddly beautiful mixture of static noise, ringing piano, and the triumphant blast of a trumpet. Despite being almost as long as “Citizen”, this track never wears out its welcome, carrying its momentum beautifully from its first moment to its last, with a subtle shift in the pitch of the strings carrying us effortlessly into the final track.
10. The Mall and Misery
And the final track might just be the most brilliant thing on the album. The opening instrumental is a mini-symphony unto itself, with Western twang meeting Eastern exotica as a pair of stringed instruments are plucked and bent beautifully against the larger string section that hums the main melody of the song in the background. This gives way to another of Broken Bells’ bounciest beats and one of Mercer’s most manic melodies (ack, alliteration!), as Danger Mouse’s programming and a repeating snippet of back-talk from a dirty electric guitar give us what is essentially the experimental indie rock version of “Free your mind, and the rest will follow”. “I know what I know would not fill a thimble, so let your mind go straight down the runway”, Mercer sings in two completely separate vocal parts that dovetail together during the uber-catchy chorus. It’s such a compact little song, yet such a beautiful example of throwing about five different genres together and making them all work, eventually fading out on a trimphant up note with its brief coda of synth and organ.
This album does feel a bit short, so I tend to tack on the bonus track “Meyrin Fields” whenever I listen to it, which was actually a B-side from the single edition of “The Ghost Inside” and will apparently be the lead track on an upcoming EP by the band. If the rest of the content is as much fun as that wigged-out blast of indie funk, then I’m totally in. I may not be on board with every single bit of genre hopping that this band tries, but I’ve found more than half of their album to be solid after taking the time to sort it all out and to look past my initial disappointment with that down-tempo block right in the middle. broken Bells have their own weird little recipe and I look forward to hearing them take it whenever it goes on future projects – which I’m hoping Mercer will continue to make time for even if he goes back to having The Shins as his main gig.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The High Road $1
Your Head Is on Fire $1.50
The Ghost Inside $1.50
Sailing to Nowhere $.50
Trap Doors $1
Mongrel Heart $1.50
The Mall and Misery $2
James Mercer: Vocals, guitars
Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse): Drums, keys, programming
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: