Under Review: Broken Bells – Broken Bells

Last we heard from Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, he was working on Dark Night Of The Soul, a mysterious multimedia project with David Lynch and the late Mark “Sparklehorse” Linkous.  One of the many vocalists to appear on the accompanying album was James Mercer.  Last we heard from him, he had abruptly and sanctimoniously dismissed half of The Shins and embarked on a very short tour with a reformed lineup.  So what are a musical busybody and the voice that was supposed to change your life to do?  Form a totally legitimate and not at all one-off side project band, of course.  For all the quirks that define both Burton’s and Mercer’s careers, Broken Bells’ self-titled debut is a surprisingly smooth and unflashy record.  The album begins with “The High Road,” which could be rightly viewed as the band’s signature song.  The tune features a honking, blurting synth whose off-kilter phrasing is later woven most skillfully into the song’s arrangement.  Burton’s love for unusual sounds is splashed all over Broken Bells, and is put to great use in the moody but bouncy “Trap Doors,” as well as the impressive album closer “The Mall And Misery.”  One of The Shins’ defining characteristics, Mercer’s alternately playful and sorrowful vocal, does play a part on Broken Bells, but not as strongly as you might expect.  “The Ghost Inside” pairs Mercer’s falsetto with a drum machine strut, while “Your Head Is On Fire” features a more subdued performance that evokes Oh, Inverted World.  Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the songs on Broken Bells don’t stick nearly as immediately as those on other Shins or Danger Mouse-produced records.  The guys are undoubtedly keenly aware of the expectations that their fans have for this project, and, while it’s certainly a pleasant listen, Broken Bells isn’t about to overshadow either of the guys’ other projects anytime soon.  The fact that Mercer and Burton are doing their best to convince everyone that this is, in fact, a real band shows that they’re ready and unafraid to cut loose their previous projects; whether or not you’re ready isn’t of much concern.  Still, anything from the camps of Burton or Mercer is going to be quality stuff, regardless of how it ranks alongside their genre-defining back catalogue.

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~ by E. on March 10, 2010.

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