The Broken Bells – Self Titled

  • Cole Faulkner posted
  • Reviews

Broken Bells

Self Titled - Columbia Records

What exactly is that pink blob monopolizing the cover of Broken Bell’s self-titled debut?  Some sort of space ship?  An exercise in complex geometric shapes?  Or maybe even some sort of post-modern take on contemporary impressionism.  Whatever the case, that big pink circle is easy to overlook, but incredibly detailed and fascinating upon closer inspection.  Turns out, the same can be said about what’s inside.  In fact, when it comes to the music within, it’s not a huge stretch to view that big pink blob as a metaphor for the Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) and James Mercer (The Shins) collaboration.  Allow me to explain…

Firstly I want to focus my attention on colour rather than shape.  The ball’s delicate pink shading hovers over a dark green sky making for a rich, eye-popping effect.  Similarly, Broken Bells bases their flowing sound around a depth of intricate swirling percussion set against a backdrop brimming with subtleties – not unlike those characteristic of Alaska’s prolific Portugal. The Man.  Just take “Vaporize” for instance; the organic slapping of handclaps accent Mercer’s wiry vocals as soft backing “ooohhhs” hum along side a purring organ.  The result is a highly defined focal point overlaid by a hazy dreamlike blanket ultimately setting the tone for the tracks ahead.

Other times the pink ball reads like a psychedelic pompom, ready to twist and bend at any time.  Tracks like “The High Road” and “Your Head Is On Fire” sweep along like some sort of soundtrack to a hippy inspired tie-dye montage.  Guitarist and vocalist James Mercer plucks lazily at his acoustics while Burton’s patterned electronics (including blips, bops, and a faint violin) surpass the sum of their hip-hop inspired parts, grounding the track in a glossy finish.  Such tracks bolster the overarching carefree vibe, and always exist within a pleasantly experimental framework.

One of my more creative interpretations of the cover is as an inverse disco ball.  That single beam of light emanating from within hints at a hidden party just waiting to be crashed.  Similarly, a few tracks into the album – after cementing the release as a thoughtful, low key offering – the band launches into an unexpected MGMT-tinged dance off with “The Ghost Inside.”  High frequency electronics climb and fall in sequence, and pitchy Bee Gees-esque vocals fly in the midst of thumping bass grooves.  Taken together, this combination presents a surprisingly movable – maybe even danceable – retro sound.  The track’s catchiness is fairly unique amongst the album, making it a suspicious candidate as a made-for-radio single.  Even so, few should complain after falling victim to the track’s infectious rhythms.

It might sound cliché, but Broken Bells’ pink blob is much like an onion.  It might look superficial on the outside, but once you peel back each layer, an inherent uniqueness sets in.  At surface value Broken Bells is a casual listen.  However, it really comes to life after repeat listens.  Those open to diving into an ambitious, stratified project should find plenty to like here.