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Album Review
Broken Bells

Broken Bells
by Broken Bells

Sony Music Entertainment

Review Date
29th March 2010
Reviewed by
Gareth Meade

In 2009, when it was revealed that Shins drummer Jesse Sandoval was fired from the band via a phone call, it seemed an uncharacteristically egotistical move on behalf of Shins mainstay James Mercer. Even more so considering that it was later exposed that Sandoval was removed because he wasn’t deemed a good enough drummer. But to give credit to Mr. Mercer, at least he didn’t carry over that bands name to his new project with Brian Burton (aka Dangermouse), which would have essentially seen him saying “I am The Shins”. Instead, the pair has opted for the alliterative Broken Bells, but that is where the differences end. Because make no mistake, Broken Bells debut is The Shins through and through.

And there really is no denying the strong influence that band’s sound has over Broken Bells. Not just because of Mercer’s distinctive voice, but also his unmistakably melodious guitar and his ever reflective song-writing. Burton’s production work on the other hand is almost unanimously slight, being most noticeable in the digitised percussion and occasional reliance on strings.

Pushing that point home further are the albums opening tracks The High Road and Vaporize. One is thoughtful and image rich, the other wistful and introspective; both surely to have been intended for the follow-up to Wincing the Night Away. Fourth song The Ghost Inside is arguably the only song to lean heavily upon Burton’s production skills, and is easily recognisable not least for its familiarity to a Gorillaz track.

This means that the first few songs are all adequate (good at best) and overwhelmingly exactly what you’d expect them to sound like considering the people involved. It’s Broken Bells being the sum of their parts rather than a whole new equation altogether. But when that potential is hinted at, the result lifts the album. Citizen finds neither musician in a rush and therefore having to push the boundaries of their combined song-writing. The track leads a second half charge and is an album highlight along with October and The Mall & Misery. It’s almost as if Broken Bells was written and recorded in sequence and as a result Mercer and Burton became more confident and comfortable with one another. Certainly The Mall & Misery is a stomping finale that reveals a style reminiscent of neither musician and is the most assured track on the album.

You’d have to think that most people who buy Broken Bells are fans of The Shins. And if that is the case, then those people should be happy to have this album as something to tide them over while they are on hiatus. They should also be pleased that given the evidence here, even without the familiar line-up they will still sound like The Shins. But for those who were hoping for more of what was hinted at on the Dangermouse and Sparklehorse collaboration Dark Night of the Soul, Broken Bells aren’t quite there yet.

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