Tuesday, February 4, 2014

album review: 'after the disco' by broken bells

It's hard to know what you'll get when you have two acts choosing to collaborate - because believe it or not, you don't always get success.

Yeah, I've covered a number of great collaborations - Run The Jewels, Step Brothers, half of Within Temptation's last album - but you don't always get success when you put together artists that have differing musical styles. Now you don't always get disasters either - the odds of getting a Lulu (Metallica/Lou Reed) aren't likely because true catastrophe albums are pretty rare (and they tend to be hastily edited by the label into something salvageable unless the artists have too much clout for their own good - see here). More often than not you either get wildly incompatible styles and a lack of cohesion that doesn't quite damn the album but doesn't save it either, or you get a fusion in between that's agreeable, but doesn't fully embrace either acts' strengths.

And it's in the latter category where I originally placed Broken Bells' self-titled debut album. James Mercer of critically acclaimed indie rock group The Shins and acclaimed producer Danger Mouse came together to form the Broken Bells project, and at the time, I mostly liked the results. The Shins have always had a taste for blissed-out psychedelia and old-fashioned pop that made their first three albums infinitely listenable, and combined with Danger Mouse's eclectic brand of production and Mercer's painfully honest and emotionally effective lyrics, Broken Bells had a lot of catchy, effective charm, even if it was a bit lightweight in terms of subject matter and it never really came together into something special. In other words, it wasn't indicative of both men's best work, and when James Mercer went back and made a new Shins album in 2012, I didn't expect to see much from this project again.

Turns out I was wrong, and James Mercer and Danger Mouse have gotten back together to release a new album titled After The Disco under the Broken Bells name. How did it go?

Well, it's an interesting case, because for all intents and purposes, I should like After The Disco by Broken Bells. I like both artists, the album is more cohesive than their debut, and musically they're calling back to one of my favourite decades for music ever. But I'm sorry, folks, I don't think it works as a whole and as much as I tried to like it, it just falls really flat for me. And it's not just one big problem either, but a bunch of little issues scattered across the record that end up making it a fair bit less than the sum of its parts. It's definitely not bad, let me stress that, but it's not nearly as good as it should be. 

Let's start with the overarching album concept: an exploration of what comes after a long night at the disco. This is a time when people are drunk, horny, depressed, tired, and searching for meaning as they step out into the cold night. And on a technical level, James Mercer's songwriting captures this well, and I'm not going to deny that he captures a pretty wide range of potential hookups, break ups, and situations where everything goes awry. But here's where we get the first problem: there's good text here, but no subtext, a lot of fleeting ephemeral situations but nothing all that tangible underneath it. 

And honestly, I don't get the feeling that was the point, because this album is taking itself way too seriously and this takes us to the instrumentation and vocals, which are attempting to evoke the disco/funk/post-punk/new wave-inspired music of the late-70s, much in the same way that Daft Punk and Franz Ferdinand did last year with their albums, both albums I absolutely loved. And I'll be honest - I do love this era of rock. It's theatrical and cheesy and hyperbolic, but it's a ton of fun and the tight bass lines combined with the eerie synths and sizzling guitars add a lot of chintzy character to the music for which I have a real fondness. 

And it's painful to watch how Broken Bells consistently misses the mark here, and it's not because Danger Mouse doesn't get this time period. In fact, I think he understands the overall concept behind how to make this style of rock work, because he's got the essential ingredients with the kitschy multi-tracking and string segments and slight unearthliness to the production. And yeah, the bass lines are solid and there is some fun guitar with good tonal choices, but the synths rarely work, often coming across as watery and wheedling without the tightness that gave early synthesizers their unique presence. And maybe it comes from self-awareness or the subject matter of the lyrics or the minor chord choices made in the melody lines, but the production isn't nearly as charming or fun as it should be, with the string segments and horn sections coming across as blaring and too 'in-on-the-joke' to really win points with me. And that's to say nothing of the inconsistent tone on this record, which on songs like 'Perfect World' and 'Lazy Wonderland' lyrically have a carefree sense of earnest optimism but musically never go far enough to back up that tone - or they go too far and miss the point entirely. Take 'Control', one of the better songs on the album that begins with a pretty solid post-punk vibe talking about a breakdown in a BDSM relationship, but then it brings in string sections and organ and big brassy horns and it becomes way too silly to take seriously.

And some of this comes back to James Mercer - and look, I like his voice a lot, he has a great sense of melody and solid hooks - but I'm not sure he's a good fit for this material. Oh, he tries, and when he dips into his falsetto you can tell he's trying his best to recreate the Bee Gees' iconic sound, but maybe he doesn't have the overblown pomp or larger-than-life bombast that could sell these songs effectively. A song like the Bowie-esque 'Lazy Wonderland' calls out for an Alex Kapranos to take the song over-the-top into something special - and James Mercer isn't the singer to do that, even with the support of child choirs and multi-tracking that falls into camp territory and not in a good way. He's better with hazy psychedelia or moments of hyper-earnest melancholy like 'Angel and the Fool', a song that shares distressingly similar chords to the Across The Universe arrangement of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' by the way. I will say he's not bad in the slinky disco/nightclub pick-up vibe, but with the watery synths and the muted melodies and the tonal mishmash, those songs aren't the closest thing to sexy and not particularly fun either. And sure, that might have been the point, but that doesn't exactly make for an enjoyable listening experience.

Look guys, I wanted to like this album. Hell, there are a few songs that have some solid grooves and are a fair bit of fun, but Broken Bells doesn't seem to want to emphasize that fun and kitsch on this record, but the darker depression and loneliness underscoring even the bright moments. Which would be a fine choice, but the album doesn't really say much about it. Coupled with instrumentation and production that has some of the cheesiness but only half-heartedly embraces it, and some poor synth and production choices, the album just doesn't work as well as it should and unfortunately ends up not being all that memorable. I'm a huge sucker for 70s-inspired instrumentation, but I also know when it doesn't really work. 5/10, and only a recommendation if you're a big Broken Bells fan and you already listened through Random Accessed Memories and Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. Both are better 70s-inspired albums - and both of them actually remember to have fun.

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