Saturday, March 20, 2010

Album Review: Broken Bells Self Titled Album

James Mercer and Brian Burton are two great forces in the world of modern pop music, though you may not recognize their names. Mercer is the front man for indie-pop icons The Shins, and Brian Burton has been associated with The Black Keys, The Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, Beck, and is the genius behind the critically acclaimed and infamously banned The Grey Album. You may know him as Danger Mouse.

Six years ago, these two met and discussed a collaboration. The timing was not right until last year, when they entered into Burton's studio stocked with an array of musical instruments, beers, ambitions and their respective genius. Had the result been released last year, my Top Fifteen Albums of the last decade would have had a slightly different look. The result is Broken Bells, a tidy pop album which deserves a spot on your shelf. Or hard drive.

What's strange about the combination of these two artists is where each comes from; Danger Mouse is primarily a producer who favors heavy studio work and post=production on his projects, while The Shins' style is mostly stripped down and easily reproducible in a live setting. The good news for Broken Bells (which is the name of the "band" as well as the album) is that the heavy production can be carried to a live setting (as they have proven on late night television and at this year's South by Southwest music festival. This is the result of a careful selection of musical instruments; if the sound could be produced by a mechanical instrument rather than an electronic synth machine, it was.

Tracks like "The High Road," "Your Head is on Fire" and "October" offer a kind of synergy of 80's synthpop, 90's techno, and 60's rock. And with everything Danger Mouse is attached to, there is a hip hop undercurrent. All of these genres meshing at once could be disastrous, but in Burton's hands and with Mercer's musicianship and wonderful voice, the end result is not a melting pot but a well mixed salad. The last track, "The Mall and Misery" fades into its component chord progression, played on organ and then instead of landing for the finish, it seems to vanish into the air. It left me strangely satisfied and yet hungry for another listen.

This album has the potential to land the underrated and soon-to-be much coveted honor of the "I'm o.k, I'm all write Best Album of the Year" award. It's the first serious contender to have been released (have you heard the new Spoon album, because I find it fair enough and also OK Go's new album is great but not competitive against the band's music videos). Burton and Mercer put together a band to support the album, but they haven't as yet made plans beyond late-night television and SXSW. Here's hoping they'll continue to tour, and that they manage to find their way to the St. Louis area. I missed The Decemberists last year and since Sunny Day Real Estate and Conan O'Brien both deemed St. Louis unworthy of visiting (why, CoCo, why?), one can only hope for a treat like Broken Bells.

You can listen to the whole album at NPR Music's Exclusive First Listen through the end of the month.

I can't find it now, but All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen did a chat with Burton and Mercer about the album, and it was released as the ASC podcast before they began their SXSW coverage. You can listen to their performance at NPR's SXSW Music Showcase Live at Stubb's BBQ here. Much like The Decemberists did at Stubb's last year during the festival, Broken Bells played their entire album live. It's not as good as being there, I am sure, but if you like the album but are skeptical of how it would sound live, give it a listen.

Speaking of bands playing music festivals, I would like to take this moment to congratulate Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three for landing a spot at this year's Newport Folk Festival. This is a pretty big deal if I do say so myself, and I'm very excited for these guys. My father and I were eager to attend the show, but it looks like that will be a no go for me at least, as the festival is in August and that's when the baby is scheduled to arrive. As much as I love Pokey and the SC3, baby takes precedence. With luck, NPR music will cover it and podcast it and I can continue vicariously living through NPR Music's Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton. do I get a job like those two have? Totally unfair.


Abalama said...

FIRST! Hahahaha . . . ok I'm done :)

Bridget said...

Marty and I are planning a trip to the Newport Folk Festival to see Pokey & the So. City Three...they are playing Aug 1...can't wait!

P.S. I respect you for putting baby ahead of P&SC3...I'll bet Kathy does too.

Anonymous said...

你不能決定生命的長度,但你可以控制它的寬度 ..................................................