Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Broken Bells - Broken Bells (Spring Records 2010)

Broken Bells

Broken Bells
Sony Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

For a few years, my only impression of The Shins was tied into my admiration for Natalie Portman, as I figured you have to be a pretty great actress to convince a restless generation that The Shins are the greatest thing ever. It was a half-joke mostly told because I’d never felt one way or another about the James Mercer-fronted indie-rock band; their most celebrated songs merely pleasant place-settings for a mixtape’s cool-off point. That I had a similarly uncommitted knowledge of Danger Mouse (AKA Brian Burton) and what he’s about makes my interest in Broken Bells, the duo’s collaborative debut, more than a little bewildering. Even for those with an intimate knowledge of each author’s expertise, Broken Bells is a patient revelation.

The emphasis journalists have placed on this self-titled effort being the result of one-on-one collaboration from the writing to mixing stage is an important one to distinguish from the mp3-trading, Postal Service method that so many acts rely on. Mercer essentially moved into Burton’s Los Angeles residence, crashing sporadically over the past year and a half to write and record upwards of thirty songs. Another comforting truth behind Broken Bells is that this creative partnership is no one-off; they’re a forward-looking band already hinting that many leftover tracks that didn’t gel on the first album might see the light of day on a forthcoming release. Amazingly, this prolific mentality shows no signs of rush or fatigue across Broken Bells’ ten tracks; in fact, these songs camouflage their ambitious streak under some pretty heavy moods and lyrical sentiments (the numbing existentialism behind ‘Citizen’, the restless cynicism motivating ‘Your Head Is On Fire’). Anyone who, like me, didn’t anticipate such daunting themes from a Danger Mouse-related project can appreciate how these sad-sack moments, which arc convincingly throughout the album’s thirty-seven minutes, compliment the radio-ready staccato rhythm guitar of ‘The Ghost Within’ or the Beatles-esque orchestration that pokes into ‘Sailing To Nowhere’. Is this a slick bedroom record or a deceptive party soundtrack? Which end of this temperamental spectrum trumps the other? That such mellow emotions merge with ease to stylish, peppy instrumentation makes Broken Bells a multi-layered success, complex but accessible.

In an interview that has seemingly disappeared from the web, Danger Mouse stated that one of his many intense conversations with Mercer centered around a recent NASA report claiming that our entire solar system is but a link in a chain of millions, a fact which likely relieves as many people as it depresses. With such curious and open-minded discussion, it’s no surprise that Broken Bells is as varied and downright cosmic, with well-rounded compositions always snooping into the outer envelope of left-field pop. The duo’s willingness to explore, whether it be Mercer’s exciting vocal turns (Shins fans won’t forget an unexpected falsetto move...) or Danger Mouse’s magician’s cap of sonic maneuvers, ensures this one of the best debuts of the year.

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