Artist: Broken Bells
Like most acts associated with the "supergroup" label, Broken Bells faced a daunting task as they prepared their first full-length album. The Shins' James Mercer and Gnarls Barkley's Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) are from highly different musical backgrounds, and obviously play to very different and distinct ends of the popular music spectrum. However, because of their collective admiration for each others respective work, this project-- a collaboration between bluesy electronic production and The Shins' light-hearted indie rock-- took place. The results, as can be surmised in most cases like this one, are mixed.
Broken Bells starts out on a collective roll, so to speak. First single, "The High Road" displays just how well Mercer's vocals can play off of Danger Mouse's soulful tones that echo away in the backdrop. In this track, the project appears as the perfect marriage. Both sides work together coherently in the shared space, and the track avoids doing too much. Next, "Vaporize" is more bluesy, but since it is more rock-based, it lends more toward The Shins' usual vibe. For the most part, it comes off as either a Shins b-side, or some highly adventurous demo. Either way, the song's relaxing, yet active mood is engaging, and encouraging for what follows, the breezy "Your Head Is On Fire." Electronic-based, and full of something resembling flower power, it goes from a floating beginning, to a shuffling and determined finish without much effort.
Unfortunately, however, the album just fails to deliver many other moments that compare to these opening track. Instead of the interesting, out-going songs we see in the onset, most of the remainder of the album is some of the same juxtapositions of indie sensibilities and electronic sounds. Simple verse-chorus-verse melodies plague slowed-down tracks like "Trap Doors," while closer "The Mall and Misery" attempts to use effects and minor chords to create some air of mystery around the whole project. By that point though, there is nothing left to be solved. You've already found out that this collaboration, like most in this vein, has its limitations.
Still, one can't get through the album without taking in Burton's lush soundscapes, which range from ambient to delicate and flighty, and beyond. "Mongrel Heart" is all about a quick-paced percussion part and hurried presence of auxiliary instrumentation, in a piece that possesses some surprising staying-power. The beginning of "October" seems to recreate the month in song, before falling into disinterest at Mercer's entrance. "Sailing to Nowhere" gives the apt feeling of sailing, as the strings- and piano-filled ballad breaks up the album at its midpoint, and pushes back the moment you begin to lose faith for at least another few minutes. If we must point out Broken Bells' weaknesses, Burton would not be the first place to look.
But if the project is to be considered for what it is-- a joint venture between Burton and Mercer-- then the whole, not just its parts must be knocked. The artists just seem to have too much faith in this sound. It's like when that whole rap-rock thing started in the 90s. A lot of people thought that it would be a cool collaboration of sounds, but didn't account for factors like tiring of the same overwrought breakdowns and subject matter, and of course, the limitations of the artists themselves (in that case, they were inhibited mightily by their lack of talent to begin with, unlike this group-- but I digress). So in that respect, maybe Broken Bells just saw too far into the future, and extrapolated the blues/electronic/indie collaboration out further than it could naturally go. It doesn't do much wrong in the model they presented, but beyond the first few tracks of the record, it really doesn't do much to keep you there either. Unfortunate, but true, nonetheless.
Best Track: "The High Road"