The first time I listened to Broken Bells’ self-titled debut, I was completely unaware of the band’s pedigree. In the end, I feel like this actually gave me a chance to enjoy the record without any preconceived notion of what to expect. Had I known I was listening to the new project from the minds of Danger Mouse — credited here under his given name, Brian Burton — and James Mercer, of indie rock act The Shins, there is a good chance that I would be more critical of the album. Instead, I found myself wrapped up in the songs, enveloped by the sound, and enjoying the down tempo vibe of the record.
The project started as a mutual admiration, shared between Burton and Mercer, and discovered when the two performed with their respective bands at the 2004 Roskilde festival. Flash forward four years to 2008 when the duo locked themselves down in Burton’s studio and challenged themselves to expand beyond the box they respectively fit in. For Burton, this meant abandoning the trappings of being Danger Mouse, and focusing on live instrumentation. For Mercer, the challenge was to stretch his vocal repertoire to its limits. The result is, arguably, one of the better records to come out in the first quarter of 2010.
There is an earthy, almost lo-fi, quality to the album that flies in the face of the songs reclusive nature. To say this is a record best listened to on a quality set of headphones is an understatement. While not a quirky as Radiohead or Animal Collective, the production more accurately evokes shades of Dark Side of the Moon era Pink Floyd. Layers upon layers of vocals, crunchy drum tracks, swirling guitars, unidentifiable electronic blips and beeps and the occasional surprise — take the trumpet solo in “Mongrel Heart” for instance — keep the otherwise laid-back record interesting. Think of this record as indie easy listening — modern mellow gold, if you will — with tuneful, mid-tempo songs that you can mindlessly hum along to after just one or two listens.
Those melodies are the real strength of Broken Bells. Whether driven by Burton’s synth heavy lines or Mercer’s quirky vocals, the real star of the album are the ten tracks that make up the record. The murmured chant that kicks off “Your Head Is on Fire” is an earworm of epic proportions. The first single, “The High Road,” strikes a precarious balance between its folksy verses, and its trip-hop chorus before resolving in an effective mash-up of the two.
There are the rare moments where the influence of the member’s previous work informs the songwriting. “The Mall and Misery” features a guitar riff that cribs heavily from The Shins sound, and “The High Road” definitely borrows from Burton’s work with the Gorillaz. Fans of either member’s previous discography will find little common ground here to grasp onto, but should still give Broken Bells a chance.
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