The first album by Broken Bells, a self-titled collaboration between The Shins’ James Mercer and Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse), came out on March 9th. To my ears, it is the best release of 2010 thus far.
Let’s learn a a bit about the principles. James Mercer is best known as the lead guy in The Shins, who have been making albums since 1997. They are recognized for the song “New Slang”, their contribution to the Garden State Soundtrack. It is a crazy good track and fit perfectly with that movie. Some people like to talk smack about the Garden State Soundtrack now, but at the time it was pretty big. Grammy, anyone? (Not that Grammies really mean anything anymore. I’ll grant you that.) I still like that song, though.
Danger Mouse’s biography will take a little more time. He started out as an electronic artist in Athens, Georgia. The first thing that most people heard about Danger Mouse was that in 2004 he took the genres of hip hop, pop, and mash-ups and shattered them all. Then, he picked up the pieces and turned them into a sonic mosaic called The Grey Album. The piece was a mixture of samples culled from the Beatles’ White Album overlaid by acappella rhymes from Jay-Z’s Black Album. In addition to shattering genres, this sound piece actually broke my brain.
From there, Danger Mouse has done a lot of other collaborations and racked up production credits like a tweaked-out pinball wizard with a studio: producer on the Gorillaz Demon Days album (the good one); half of the “Crazy” popular duo, Gnarls Barkley; a collaboration with MF Doom called DangerDoom (inventive, guys); production for indie rockers The Black Keys; and production on Beck’s album Modern Guilt. To say that’s a pretty nice resume would be like saying Susan Boyle kind of looks like a dude; Susan Boyle TOTALLY looks like a dude, and that is a GREAT resume. (Parenthetically, can I just add here that it is awesome that I can type “Susan Boyle looks like a dude” into a search engine and instantly have my choice of images? Done and done. Back to the review.)
Some of Danger Mouse’s projects come off as just an album by the artist, produced by Danger Mouse. The Beck album would come to mind as one fitting in this category. Still other Danger Mouse projects turn into equal partnerships where each party brings something to the table and the pieces coalesce into something new and awesome, like Gnarls Barkley. Broken Bells would fall into the latter category.
As legend has it, the pair met backstage at a music festival in 2004 and hit it off. They wanted to work together, but it didn’t happen for another four years. The project started off as a secret, but blog world got wind of it last year and we have been waiting for the release since then. Now it’s here.
The album is essentially a pop album with extras; the songs are built around guitar and drum sounds, with layered bits of Danger Mouse magic interspersed at just the right intervals. In an interview on NPR’s All Songs Considered, the duo intimated that these sounds were influenced by the instruments in Danger Mouse’s LA studio (electric harpsichord, Hammond organ, etc.), as well as instruments they bought together, like a special Fender 6 guitar they used extensively and whose distinct sound gives some of the songs an Ennio Morricone-like quality (if you’re not familiar with Morricone, think Spaghetti Western soundtracks. He’s the one who made them.)
The song many people heard before the release of the album was the advance single, “The High Road”, released last December. It is also the first track on the album. This is a catchy song with a steady, mid-tempo beat, as well as a singalong ending refrain: “It’s too late to change your mind/ You let laws be your guide.” Actually, Mercer leaves it a bit ambiguous and sometimes I can’t tell if he says “guide” or “God,” which is cryptically cool. Danger Mouse surreptitiously scatters sounds about like so many stars, frosting the song with a trail of vapor dust.
The next great song on Bells is a doozy. “The Ghost Inside” is uber-simple and funky, with a very spare electric beat that hardly changes, a few sparse hand claps, some synthesizer, guitar, and Mercer’s terrific vocal. During this song he switches from a falsetto yowl during the verses, to a mid-range plea for the choruses, and finally to a deeper, conversational cadence during the breakdowns. This performance gives a repetitive song perceived diversity and makes it into one of the top bangers on the album.
“October” is anthemic; it reminds me of a drunken piano player in an old country western saloon. You know, the one who gets shot by a stray bullet when the card game goes awry. It’s sad like that, but beautiful at the same time, like one of those sultry fall days, when it feels like winter will never come. That’s nice imagery for one song to evoke.
Those are my favorite songs on Bells. Now for some short cuts:
The story on “Sailing to Nowhere” is the beautiful piano and string arrangement that adorns this aching waltz. You know when someone kisses their fingers and then splays them up into the air, saying “Magnifique!” like a French chef? This is the aural equivalent of that.
“Citizen” is a hipster robot, programmed to destroy. ‘Nuff said, right? Admit it, you can totally picture that song now. It’s not just lazy writing.
“Mongrel Heart” sounds like a creepy new wave song. It should have a video where the band is drawn in illustrations and then steps through a portal that turns them into real men with bad haircuts.
“The Mall and the Misery” has the epitome of the aforementioned “Morricone sound” at its beginning and then turns into an urgent car chase-type track. I would definitely play this song on the car stereo if I was ever on the run from the cops, careening down alleys and over hills, sparks and body parts flying. It sounds just like that, it really does. This one has some badass guitar riffs.
I neglected to mention a couple of the tracks, including “Vaporize”, “Your Head is on Fire”, and “Trap Doors” on purpose. I think “Vaporize” is actually going to be the next single. It’s a good song. It’s not that I don’t like these cuts, they just didn’t grab me, so they don’t get mentioned. Every album has a couple of throwaway tracks, although I’m sure the artists would object to me calling them that. It’s not that I don’t think they should be on the album, though. Every great album needs a couple of downers to accentuate the greatness of the others. That’s just the way it is.
And this is a great album, from a band that is just getting started. Although the songs from the album were done in the studio by Mercer and Danger Mouse alone, they have formed a band and are headed out on the road soon, starting with that mythical musical wonderland that I never get to go to, South by Southwest Fest. In the future they will be available for more bookings, so, Splitworks, STD, let’s make it happen!
In the meantime, you, the listener should get this album and listen to it. A lot. They even have a $40 Deluxe Edition with ultra-neato stuff like artwork and glow-in-the-dark stickers! The box of the CD plays an unreleased track when you open it, like a post-modern music box! If I still bought CDs I would so totally be there! But, I don’t! But I’m still listening! And so should you! I can’t stop using exclamation points!