Review: Broken Bells – After the Disco

It’s been amusing to read reviews of the new Broken Bells album, namely the amount of focus that multiple critics place on the name of the record.  It brings to mind memories of middle schoolers putting together slap-dash book reports and riffing as much as they can on the title and back page in their oral presentations.  It makes me wish that I had some social media pull to start a trending hashtag of #CrappyBookReports.  I can understand how certain bands spend a lot of time and effort thinking that the album title really encapsulates what they were going for on the record, but you know, sometimes it’s just a convenient label (and just something taken from a particular song).

So, in other words, I’m not placing much stock in any grand statement in After the Disco.*  Instead, I’m content to enjoy it as a pleasant 45 minute record of mid-tempo rock.  The highs aren’t particularly high, and I wouldn’t say there’s a killer single hidden in the tracklisting somewhere, though “Holding On For Life” was enough of a hook to get me excited to actually buy the album.

One thing that the album does a great job is throwing enough curveballs that seemingly straight-ahead tracks usually in a place that you don’t expect.  It makes for a great listening experience, but hell to figure out which song exactly it was that you were digging.   Opener “Perfect World” starts with a great, motoring groove (almost a disco beat!), and then ends with a great half-time coda that brings the mood back down to Earth (maybe I should give critics more credit–they saw the album title AND listened to the first song).  That said, songs where the tempo picks up like “The Changing Lights” and “Medicine” stand out a bit, but they never fully lift off.  It’s most clear in the song “No Matter What You’re Told”–if there was just a little bit more urgency and just a couple more beats per minute (and a snare sound that was a bit more lively), this would be a great crowd-pleaser.  But the restraint is clearly by design, so it’s difficult to pin all the blame on stylistic choices like that one.

The biggest problem is with the concept of “Broken Bells” itself.  Both James Mercer and Danger Mouse have done excellent work on their own, but the combination of the two is puzzling at first glance, and there’s not really enough in their music to take away any potential doubts.  Mercer already has an authoritative voice in The Shins and is a suitable vehicle for most of his musical ambitions; Danger Mouse has produced great tracks, but he could probably need a stronger vocal presence than Mercer.  The music never really rises above its side-project nature; the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

But there is something to be said for just good music; bands don’t always need to justify themselves.  In that respect, I’m perfectly content on buying Broken Bells albums and will probably continue to do so in the future.

*For the record, I always thought that After the Disco would have been a perfect title for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz!

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