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CD Review: Broken Bells / Broken Bells

Broken Bells
Broken Bells

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

 Reviewed by:  Sally Feller

Broken Bells is made up of artist-producer Danger Mouse and The Shins’ lead vocalist and guitarist James Mercer. The band sounds a bit like The Shins, but Danger Mouse brings in some more daring beats and the two play a bit more with different sounds and experimental voice-synthing.

When I first listened to Broken Bell’s self-titled album I thought it was pretty decent, nothing special, but decent. The more I listen to this one, the more I fall in love with it. In it, you’ll find folk-rock for adults—those who’ve outgrown the college band-stylings of the alternative radio stations, but who are still cool enough to loathe the musical stylings of Celine Dion.

“Broken Bells” opens with some discordant notes and a steady beat with “The High Road”. The vocals lend just a bit to Radiohead and the down tempo sound will have you bobbing your head and changing up the gait of your sidewalk strut. While the beat is down tempo, the song is far from being a depressive downer. Instead, you’ll hear thoughtful, introspective lyrics of a thirty-something. The synths and electronically-mixed vocals lend a modernity to the folksy rock.

Next up is “Vaporize,” an upbeat, acoustic guitar-driven tune. Again,  here are some reflective and mature lyrics about growing older and living life without regrets. This is one of my favorites from the album, one you might play if you had some buddies over for drinks and, say, Twister. The happy guitar riff and the tambourine keep the song youthful, hopeful, and carefree.

“Your Head is On Fire” starts with a down tempo emu-atmospheric sound and then changes up about thirty-seconds in to a more radio-friendly modern folk-rock song. It’s a little trippy, a little lethargic, and a little like something you’d hear in the party scene of an indie movie.

“The Ghost Inside” stands out a bit from the rest of the songs—it opens with fun dance hall rhythms and clap beats…and you all know how much I love clap beats. The vocals open up with a rather disconcerting falsetto, but you are quickly drawn in with the fun…really, can’t think of a more appropriate word for this song…a fun sound. The electronica so prevalent in this song runs all the way through, but doesn’t fall flat as sometimes happens with this genre …instead it create dynamic layers so that your ears are perpetually confused, but really pleased to be so. You might hear just a little of Of Montreal in “The Ghost Inside.”

“Sailing to Nowhere” brings to mind a kid flying a remote-controlled airplane. And, as the song title suggests, the sound is downright nautical. It sounds like what I would imagine French indie-pop might sound like if it were marketed to an American/British audience. The playful piano is reminiscent of a silent movie where the main character just came up with a brilliant, if hilariously flawed, idea. Violins come in from out of nowhere to do a sweeping end cap. What an excellent tune!

“Trap Door” is next. This down tempo song is another reflective, introspective song that will please pretty much everyone. There are a few risks taken, but not quite as many as were taken in the other songs on the album. Definitely not a bad song, by any means, but maybe a bit more like some of the The Shins albums than some of the other songs. Perfect background driving music for a long road trip or train ride.

“Citizen” is up next. This one is a slow ballad with a bit of a Brian Eno sound to it. The lyrics question, once again, the meaning of life, but in approachable terms…nothing too over the top here.

“October”—this chill, downbeat song is a lovely little tune with fantastic lyrics. I know I’ve mentioned lyrics a lot for this review, but it’s been some time since I’ve heard lyrics worthy of the music the bands pump out. Broken Bells bring it with the lyrics—pulling together the adult-angst of my generation without dwelling in the depressing. They look at the big picture and question the decisions we make for ourselves. 

My other favorite on the album “Mongrel Heart” is next. This killer upbeat, dance-worthy song pulls together those same great lyrics and chill mood to create a dynamic song that I’d dare you all to listen to without dancing. Dare you! The electronica is more prevalent on this song than the others, which is why it’s so upbeat and happy without being a Beyonce song. Success! You might hear a resemblance to Cut Copy, MuteMath, and Phoenix…in other words, all goodness. In the middle is something that reminded me of both Ryan Gosling’s “Dead Man’s Bones” and a spaghetti western soundtrack. You need to hear it, clearly, as I can’t even begin to explain it better than that.

“The Mall & Misery” closes out the album. I heard this one on a few indie-rock podcasts before getting this album, so you can find it from KCRW’s Today’s Top Tune podcast and a few others. It has the same depth that the other songs on the album have with the opening and then the catchy rhythms and a hip-shaking beats will take you over against your will.

Overall, Broken Bells certainly resembles The Shins, but brings it own electronic elements to it to add depth and character to the Shins-esque lyrics. You’ll love it, trust me. You can actually download “The High Road” for free on NPR’s South by Southwest “SXSW Sampler”:  (you’ll find some other killer songs here, too. You’re welcome.)


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