Set on Shuffle: Broken Bells

Broken BellsPrelude

We here at Pop Modern are experimenting with some new forms of collaborative content, and we thought a natural place to start with our new forays into group talk would be music. With that in mind, we present the first installment of “Set on Shuffle,” a trio of album reviews all centered around a common theme. Some installments will have all albums chosen by one of us, and some of them will be conducted in the round. This time around, Magellan wanted to honor the release of the new Broken Bells album next month by looking at the previous work of its collaborators (The Shins frontman James Mercer and Danger Mouse), as well as the duo’s eponymous first release.

The Reviews

Allen

Album Title: 
Wincing The Night Away by The Shins
Impression: With absolutely no exposure to The Shins other than passing words of praise, I was pleasantly surprised by Wincing The Night Away. It starts off kind of rocky, but James Mercer’s vocals shine through from the first track. “Australia” was mostly impressive because it made me enjoy banjo music, and it was the point at which I realized that The Shins are doing cool things with chord progression. After the instrumental “Pam Berry”, the album hits this really interesting tone, mixing surprisingly introspective lyrics with dischordant instruments. The random string instruments on “Sea Legs,” the darker tone of “Red Rabbits,” and then, as the album winds to a close, I realized something miraculous. These seemingly disparate, off-beat sound choices actually complement Mercer’s vocals. The last few tracks did some interesting things experimentally, but I feel like Wincing The Night Away really hit its stride around the middle. Even when I felt like I was just listening to Hey Ocean’s Is (a similarly chill, yet more pop-ish album), the production of this album makes it unique. By the time I was listening to “A Comet Appears” and the vocals were fading out, I was legitimately bummed it was over. Fortunately, the replay button was just a push away.
Favorite Track: My favorite track has to be either “Turn On Me” or “Australia”. “Turn On Me” is just so moody and pleasant, which is kind of how I felt about the whole album. And “Australia” is a trip through all sorts of musical styles, and I came out of it a big fan of The Shins.
Take-Away: I’d say Essential Listening if you want something different. The songs bear similarities to contemporary artists, but nobody is doing the things that The Shins did in Wincing The Night Away. It’s a beautiful, self-contained bit of musical sweetness, ready to put you to sleep on one track or have you air drumming in the next.

James

Album Title: St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley
Album Impression: Every once in a while, I am asked to step outside my usual limited experience, and asked to participate in something I would normally never do. This album was a unique experience for me, in the sense that I never have really listened to Gospel music at any great length. The fact of the matter is that the gospel-inspired techno music provides a gorgeous blend of emotion and cold sound. At its best, the album manages to combine the two musical genres well, mixing them into a coherent piece of work that showcases the talents of both artists. At its worst, it tended towards one genre, to the exclusion of the other. Both Cee Lo Green and Danger Mouse are immensely talented, and the frenetic vibes that come from some of their songs balance well against the more ballad-esque pieces. The production value is through the roof, and each of the artists seems to have found their own particular niche.
Favorite Track: “Crazy.” Even though it’s been played to a great extent, it still has the soul and energy that really shines through.
Take-Away: Worth a Listen

Magellan

Album Title: Broken Bells by Broken Bells
Impression: I’m a huge fan of The Shins, so I may be going into this album with a taste bias. That is to say, there’s enough carry-over of that airy, atmospheric quality that Mercer brings into his Shins songs that every song on Broken Bells has something for me to like. From the earworm perfection right out of the gate with “The High Road,” to the vocal effects throughout “Vaporize,” to the high-pitched verses and hand-clapping of “The Ghost Inside,” this album drips with the kind of vocal sound that weaves its way through some of The Shins’ best work. That isn’t to ignore what Danger Mouse brings to the table, of course, since the instrumental flourishes throughout do a lot to give the album its own unique flavor, to create a musical landscape that really can’t be replicated anywhere else. If you want songs that indicate this point, play “Your Head Is On Fire” or “Sailing To Nowhere.” Of course, if you listen to all these songs, you may come to the same conclusion I did, which is that they all sound fairly similar. This collaboration births a groovy twist on the Shins style, but it doesn’t do much else. All of the tracks are around the same speed, with similar-sounding instrumentation. There just isn’t much motion throughout the album, which, upon attempts to re-listen, has made it hard for me to want to jam along to anything past the first track.
Favorite Track: “The High Road” is both the first track on the album and the most popular for a reason: it’s the most distinctive of the bunch. The whole album, like I’ve said, has a wonderful ambiance to it, but when it comes to picking a single track and labeling it the best, one need not go further than “The High Road.”
Take-Away: Definitely listen to “The High Road.” If you like the sound, or if you’re a huge fan of either The Shins or Gnarls Barkley, I would recommend listening to a few tracks and deciding for yourself. Otherwise, just listen to the one song and call it a day.

Epilogue

And that’s it, the three-album primer to get you ready to listen to After the Disco, which is set to drop on February 4th. If you disagree with any of our points, you want to champion a particular song that we didn’t mention, or you want to offer up a suggestion for the next installment of Set on Shuffle, let us know in the comments below.

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