20 Watts

ISSUE 21 | Reviews: Broken Bells’ Broken Bells by 20watts

20 Watts gives Broken Bells' self-titled a 15/20 watts.

Part of Issue 21 Coverage!

PREVIEW: VISIT Broken Bells’ MySpace
WE GIVE IT: 15/20 Watts

It’s hard to call Broken Bells just another “supergroup,” because the sound of their debut album is so authentic, soulful and melodically experimental. Broken Bells is made up of The Shins’ James Mercer and Gnarls Barkley’s Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, but they’re not a match made in heaven – they just sound great together.

Even though the album drops on March 9, the group teased the world with its groovy, smooth opening track, “The High Road” on Dec. 29. The cleanly coordinated lead single may flow with the innocence of a post-Beatles Paul McCartney song, but its electronic whirs and blips resound with the sultry edge of Danger Mouse’s Gnarls Barkley influences.The diversity each musician brings to the table really glows on songs like “Vapor­ize” and “Your Head Is on Fire.” Folk mixed with reggae and afro-pop populate the insistently rhyming “Vaporize.” Broken Bells then take a leaf out of Animal Collective’s book with nuanced percussion and tribal chanting on the next track “Your Head Is on Fire.” It’s consistently vibrant and versatile, and each song flirts with the sensations. The songs sizzle sometimes and warm your heart the rest of the time.

None of the songs share a definite structure or formula. The tightly refined soft-rockers all stand on their own merits. You get the sense that Danger Mouse and Mercer sought to test each other’s abilities, and in doing so created something punchy and fun to listen to. The best example of this is “Mongrel Heart” where they sample Cure-like harmonies matched with synthe­sizer samples, which offsets the folksy beat from the rest of the album. It’s the closest thing to a pop song, next to the more elec­tronic “The Mall and the Misery.”

Probably the best thing about is that it doesn’t immediately sound like the work of either The Shins or Gnarls Barkley. You definitely sense the indie soul­fulness of The Shins and the smooth R&B of Gnarls Barkley, but not to the point you call this band a bad science experiment. Mercer and Burton managed an original sound together, something that other supergroups Monsters of Folk, Them Crooked Vultures and Velvet Revolver often fail to accomplish.

The only awkward aspect of this album is finding its physical role in modern music – it’s not dance music, but it’s too jacked up for folk.  If there were any other album to compare it to, it would be Peter Bjorn and John’s 2009 release Living Thing. Both records sound strangely infectious, due to their unique instrumentation and production. They are each difficult to discern on the sur­face, but repeated listening reveals layers of nuanced percussion, innovative production techniques and comfortable artistry. Neither album aims at terrific experimentalism, but try just enough to keep listeners guessing.

“The Ghost Inside” exemplifies this similarity with its fresh flamenco guitar, high-pitched harmonies and an unrelenting drum-machine beat that continues through­out the song. It flows well from “Your Head Is on Fire,” but its transition into the next song “Sailing to Nowhere” creates the first real moment of dissonance on the album.“Sailing Nowhere” continues the experi­mentation with lo-fi vocals and muddled sound effects. Jarring drum beats, tinny piano bars and distorted guitars interrupt Mercer’s casual delivery of vaguely non­sensical lyrics about finding his way out of nowhere. As weird as Broken Bells are, they never sound caustic.

Supergroups don’t usually last long – the bandmates typically make one or two albums and return to the better-known bands they each came from. Not that it matters, because if Broken Bells break up tomorrow, they still created a solid debut. In that sense, Broken Bells’ closest contemporaries might have been The Postal Service – if The Postal Service still made music.

Broken Bells’ first attempt cannot be appreciated before considering the difficulty established musicians experience in trying to gel with a new collaborator. Danger Mouse and Mercer met in 2004 and thought they had a shot to make some good music. In the end, they made something that could stand up against their contemporaries’ work. Despite their backgrounds in very different musical genres, like The Postal Service seven years ago, the two work well. Broken Bells’ sheer feel-good accessibility elevates it past the ephemeral but similarly self-titled work of their supergroup contemporaries.

— Jett Wells

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