Broken Bells

My music listening habits have greatly changed in the last couple of years. I last blogged about it almost one year ago to the day. At the time, I was expressing frustration with the internet culture that values acquisition over appreciation, and consensus over quality. Although I didn’t know it then, I was expressing the same frustration that prompted Michelangelo Matos to form the Slow Listening Movement. We don’t agree on everything, for one, I am much more attached to the album as a form than he seems to be, but we seem to have the same root frustration, and are dealing with it in similar ways.
At the time that I wrote that post, I pretty much stopped paying attention to buzz bands/reading fare like Pitchfork, Stereogum, etc. Sometimes, this works against me; for example, I just got around to listening to the Cold War Kids’ set on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic and was pretty blown away. But in the intervening year, there have been a few artists that I follow to the extent that I listen to whatever new promotional material or albums that they release. It’s a very short list: The National, LCD Soundsystem, maybe a couple others. And Brian Burton, AKA Danger Mouse.
Danger Mouse is one half of Broken Bells. The other half is James Mercer of The Shins. I don’t carry many preconceptions about Mercer, or The Shins. I’ve never seen Garden State, and although for a time “New Slang” was too omnipresent to miss completely, I’ve never heard any more of their music (though this is a good time to link to Steve Hayden’s essay on the decline of The Shins). I recognize the elements on Broken Bells that seem like they come from Danger Mouse, but I’m not sure what exactly Mercer is bringing to the album (except, obviously, singing).
Whatever the split is, I like it.
Broken Bells is Danger Mouse at his most pop-comfortable. With every project that I listen to that he’s involved in, I become more and more convinced that he’s one of the true pop geniuses of the world. Everything he does has a high-quality pop sheen, he’s great at structuring music around a hook, and he tastefully incorporates unusual music elements such that there is always something interesting to listen for while remaining part of a coherent whole. One of the things that I appreciate as a musician is that he’s a true master of the synthesizer: not using it as an easy tool for real-instrument samples but bringing out it’s voice to create lines and hooks that are only possible on a synth.
It’s a pretty relaxed record. There’s not much of Gnarls Barkley/Gorillaz-style craziness (a notable exception is the fantastic track “The Ghost Inside.”). Perhaps that relaxed, party/study/driving music vibe is James Mercer’s contribution. One of the most fascinating things about Danger Mouse’s production is the way that he adapts conventional music tropes into his futuristic pop sound. In Broken Bells, I hear a lot of conventions and rhythms from ’50’s rock and roll carefully hidden under the deceptively complex production.
Broken Bells is another fantastic collaboration from Danger Mouse, and great music to spend some time with.
Key Tracks: The High Road; The Ghost Inside; Trap Doors; October;

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