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Album Review: Broken Bells – After the Disco [Columbia]

Think for a moment about a disco. Depending on your age, there’s probably a good likelihood that you’ve never actually been inside of one, given most of them have long since died out to be replaced by the common night club atmosphere of today. But thanks to photos and videos, maybe even a little Saturday Night Fever, everybody has at least some idea of what the experience of walking into a disco might have been like. The mirror ball hanging from the ceiling and the multicolored light up checkerboard floor were the two key components to any disco, outside of the music of course. It was a fun place to be, especially if you loved to dance. But disco the music style and disco the club type both died off, and we’re left with the considerably less technicolor post-disco era. While we as a society are arguably better off without it, there’s still a hint of sadness at the loss of some of those elements. Use that as a starting point for Broken Bells’ second full length, After the Disco. The duo’s 2010 self-titled debut album was a multicolored, eclectic and moderately fun affair that allowed James Mercer to play around with some different styles outside of his work under The Shins name. Meanwhile Danger Mouse got to add another dynamic collaboration to a resume already packed with them. That first record and the subsequent Meyrin Fields EP might not have been the best things associated with either one of the principal members, but they were satisfactory given the circumstances through which they were birthed.

Over the last few years, Mercer returned to The Shins reinvigorated and provided a great reminder that bouncy indie pop is what he does best, and Danger Mouse produced a few more records for different artists that all wound up sounding similarly retro to one another as a result. Broken Bells was starting to feel like an afterthought, to the point where the announcement of After the Disco seemed to be met with a collective shrug all across the web. To a degree that same mentality comes across in the music as well. Gone is the melting pot of styles and genres, replaced with a more subdued and unified spacey synth pop sound that only manages to truly work for them on a couple of tracks. Single “Holding on for Life” is one of those particularly strong moments, with an earworm of a chorus that feels inspired by the Bee Gees. The delicately crafted groove of “The Changing Lights” also marks a great showcase for Danger Mouse, and it’s just about the only time he shines on the entire record. If you’re looking for the weak link among the duo, he is clearly and unfortunately it. While Mercer does a fine job singing and certainly knows his way around a lyric, the cold, plain and emotionless compositions distract from a lot of the good that’s being done. It leads to moments like “Medicine” and the title track, which have solid dancefloor tempos to them but fail to connect or stay with you in any meaningful way. At least the first Broken Bells album had some variety and curveballs to keep you interested even as it made some wrong turns. With After the Disco, the neon lit floors have been shut off and the mirror ball has been cut down. Turns out a dance club can be a pretty depressing place once someone turns the house lights on.

Broken Bells – Holding on for Life

Broken Bells – Leave It Alone

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Album Review: The Shins – Port of Morrow [Columbia/Aural Apothecary]

Hard to believe it’s been eight years since Natalie Portman told Zach Braff that The Shins would “change your life” during a key scene in the little indie film that could Garden State. Since then, so much has happened. Braff’s career has flamed out, Natalie Portman’s has not, and The Shins all but disappeared for awhile courtesy of Danger Mouse. Yes, after their early 2007 album Wincing the Night Away became Sub Pop’s biggest selling record ever, James Mercer stepped away from the project to focus on collaborating with Danger Mouse on a side project known as Broken Bells. Obsessive Shins devotees would follow Mercer anywhere of course, and the 60s-styled psych-pop jams that populated the self-titled LP and Meyrin Fields EP made it pretty easy to pick up new fans as well. After the first couple years some began to wonder whether The Shins would ever return, and Mercer didn’t exactly make any promises. Adding fuel to the fire was Mercer’s announcement that keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval had left the band, with Sandoval later claiming he was flat out fired. Whatever actually happened there, the loss of those two amicable and talented musicians would appear to not bode well for whatever The Shins might choose to do in the future. Yet Mercer has always been the man behind the name, writing and piecing together most of the songs on his own anyways.

The return of The Shins finally became imminent last summer, when it was announced the band would be releasing new music and touring “soon”. The new lineup was also revealed, which included Richard Swift, Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer, former Crystal Skulls member Yuuki Matthews and guitarist Jessica Dobson. After five years away, The Shins are finally back with a new album called Port of Morrow. Listening to it, somehow it feels like they never left. This is a record entirely ignorant of time and trends, simply seeking to do exactly what The Shins do best – provide straightforward and catchy indie pop. It makes perfect sense that the album’s first single is called “Simple Song”, because it comes as advertised. The ease at which the song draws you close and plants its hooks firmly within your ears is impressive. Mercer doesn’t need any flash or innovation to come up with something excellent, instead preying on our innate love of easily digestible melodies. It helps that the album is produced by Greg Kurstin, a guy known for taking overblown songs and turning them into something warm and friendly to listen to. Instead of “The Rifle’s Spiral” crushing you with its sheer size, keyboards plink and sparkle, handclaps pepper the background, and Mercer plays the gooey and calm center of it all with his vocals. That balance between grandiose and intimate is not an easy thing to achieve, and Kurstin does an exceptional job with it.

Of course no great record is based solely on the work of a talented producer, and Port of Morrow is no exception. Mercer has always been a dynamo in his own right, and previous Shins outings like Oh, Inverted World! and Chutes Too Narrow prove that without question. Listen closely to past gems like “New Slang” and “Kissing the Lipless” to truly get a grasp on the man’s penchant for clever wordplay that sometimes lacks common sense. “When they’re parking the cars on your chest, you’ve still got a view of the summer sky,” is one such confusing gem from “Know Your Onion!”. Wincing the Night Away had plenty of things in common with the band’s previous two albums, but it was a far darker and more personal record that felt less lyrically adventurous on the whole. A few years and middle age appear to have brought Mercer back to writing about characters again, and though they may not always be the most positive songs, the tempo and pacing are far better than they were the last time around. Even a relatively plain-sounding folk song like “September” gets a huge boost thanks to lines like, “Love is the ink in the well/when her body writes.” The Billy Joel-esque “Fall of ’82” might be considered a little too adult contemporary for some, but its message about friends helping you through troubled times is very well handled and softens the somewhat piddling melody. Sometimes the opposite is true though, as on “For A Fool”, where a Beach House-styled slow waltz only loses a slight bit of its potency due to the clunky hook of, “Taken for a fool/yes I was/because I was a fool.” Perhaps the most fascinating song on the entire record is the title track, which is one part psychedelic experiment and another part torch song. The mixture of the two styles is very well done, as are the lyrics which while obtuse are visually stimulating.

There’s a certain point in an artist’s career where you know they’ve officially gone from indie superstars to mainstream darlings. For The Shins, that moment fully arrived with the release of Wincing the Night Away. It was a steady but strong rise to the occasion, and one that was peppered with disappointment for those that gave a careful listen to the record. They may have still been signed to Sub Pop at the time, but the popularity of that album despite its many faults really suggested the band was headed towards the fate of relatively bland pop-rock a la Death Cab for Cutie. The five year break James Mercer took from the project and the comparatively difficult music Broken Bells made during that time apparently did great things for The Shins. The change in lineup and producers may have been a smart move too, because Port of Morrow is the best record Mercer has put out since 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. To do it, they didn’t even have to get weird or make significant adjustments to their sound. A great record doesn’t require innovation provided it’s well structured and well written, and The Shins have done both in this case. If they keep this up, they may actually change a lot more lives in the near future, including their own.

Buy Port of Morrow from Amazon

Click past the jump to stream the entire album (for a limited time only):

EP Review: Broken Bells – Meyrin Fields [Columbia]

By all accounts, James Mercer and Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) work well together. Functioning as Broken Bells, their self-titled debut record that came out last year was a pretty solid piece of 60s-tinged pop with a modern twist. The assumption at the time was that Broken Bells would be only a temporary project, lasting only an album or two. After all, Danger Mouse wasn’t one to settle down so easy, given his habit of bouncing from project to project in addition to functioning as producer for a number of different artists. While there’s no indication that Danger Mouse’s team-up with Cee-Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley is officially dead, it hasn’t shown any signs of life the last couple years. Factor in Cee-Lo climbing the ladder of success a second time but on his own courtesy of “Fuck You”, and he probably doesn’t feel the need to keep that thing going. On the other side of this puzzle you have James Mercer, frontman for The Shins but in a tight spot of his own after firing his bandmates though replacing them with new guys. Despite talk of a new Shins record on the way back in 2009, nothing has materialized yet and last year Mercer said he wasn’t sure when he’d return to that band except that it wouldn’t be before mid-2011. We’ll see if that happens eventually, but for now we might as well deal with the reality of Broken Bells and their new/old EP “Meyrin Fields”.

The four songs and just under 12 minutes of music on “Meyrin Fields” are made up of a b-side and a couple outtakes from the same sessions that contributed to last year’s debut. The title track first appeared as paired with “The Ghost Inside” single, and it’s remarkably kinetic, particularly for Broken Bells. Eletronic squelches squirm about as the main source of melody as a menacing bass line runs underneath and matches wits with the equally dark lyrics. It makes sense as to why the song didn’t fit on the original record, but has enough deevelopment and smart structure to make for another single or even build an entire EP around. The dark energy holds steadfast on “Windows”, and thanks to a number of blips and bleeps there’s a certain urgency that only makes the song more compelling. The increased reliance on electric guitar also is just a little different from the Broken Bells norm, which tends to be organ or keyboard-based more often than not, with only little splashes of ferocity. Those keyboard and organ elements are what “An Easy Life” mostly uses, in tandem naturally with other electronic elements and beats. There’s a reggae-like bounce that the track cruises along to, and while it is just fine, there’s nothing much to make the song stand out or leave any sort of lasting impression on you. They can’t all be winners. Closing track “Heartless Empire” is a big winner on this EP though, creating a unique pastiche of grinding shoegaze guitars and drifting synth pop. It’s actually the best mixture of the two distinct styles that Mercer and Burton bring to this band, even moreso than much of what was on that first full length.

Where the “Meyrin Fields” EP missteps is really in its conception. That’s not to call it a completely useless exercise, but rather as a cohesive set of songs it doesn’t work in the least. Taken individually, close to everything has its merits and comes across as worthwhile. There’s just too much disparity in the sonic makeup of these tracks to call it a whole piece. Similarly though, there’s no place for these songs on that self-titled full length either, so in trying to create some sort of stopgap or just to get all the material out there for consumption, the purpose is served. Still, you can’t help but think that besides “Meyrin Fields” the song, if they’d just dished one more out as a b-side (say…”An Easy Life”) to a single, then a track like “Heartless Empire” could have earned its own separate 7″ single with “Windows” as its b-side. That would have been a more economical and perhaps financially beneficial move to make. Equally rewarding might have been saving these songs for a rainy day and seeing if any of them could fit into the context of a new Broken Bells full length. Assuming there will be a second Broken Bells album, of course. Oh well, what’s done is done, and the “Meyrin Fields” EP does a solid job of showing there’s more range to this band than what most of us first thought. It’s enough to give you hope – that maybe this is a project that deserves to exist well beyond what almost seemed destined to be a one-off collaboration.

Buy the “Meyrin Fields” EP from Amazon

Live Friday: 8-13-10

Live Friday this week features a session from Broken Bells. If you’re not in the know, Broken Bells is the duo of James Mercer of The Shins and Danger Mouse. Their self-titled debut album was released this past March to what might be classified as moderately great reviews. There’s an exceptionally smooth 60’s-ish vibe to the whole thing, and while it is somewhat unexpected for the pair, it does work well. Almost as proof positive of that, in addition to playing a bunch of songs from their album, they also do a cover of the 60s hit “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. It fits in to the point where you’d think it was a Broken Bells original. So that’s good, the rest of the songs are as well, recorded live in Philadelphia. There’s a little bit of an interview as well, and if you want to hear it the link to stream it is available below.

Broken Bells, Live in Philadelphia 6-6-10:
Broken Bells – The Ghost Inside (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – Crimson and Clover (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – The High Road (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – Vaporize (Live in Philadelphia)
Broken Bells – Mongrel Heart (Live in Philadelphia)

Stream the entire interview/performance

Buy “Broken Bells” from Amazon

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