Tuesday, October 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1059: Broken Bells

Some days you wake up ready to face any challenge, overcome any obstacle and conquer the world. I’d like to say today was one of those days, but I just felt a little tired.

Disc 1059 is…After the Disco
Artist: Broken Bells

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? A woman basks in the pink light of the geometric shape from the cover of the first Broken Bells album (reviewed back at Disc 462), while all around her the cosmos flows. Ordinarily, I’d warn her to put on that helmet if she is going out in zero gravity, but I doubt that just the helmet is going get the job done.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila bought the first Broken Bells album, and knowing she liked them, I might’ve bought her this one as a birthday or Christmas gift, but I can't be sure. The answer is lost in the mists of time and the hundreds of albums that have caught my fancy since then.

How It Stacks Up:  We have two Broken Bells CDs, and of the two I’ll put “After the Disco” in second.

Ratings: 3 stars

I tend toward rock music or folk music, and the artificiality of synthetic pop is just not my thing, but Broken Bells knows how to do that sound so well I ended up liking “After the Disco” despite my biases.

It helps that James Mercer just knows how to write a catchy hook (he’s done it for years in the Shins). Add in Danger Mouse’s talent at production, and the result is some very catchy pop songs. Mercer has a high, sonorous indie folk vocal, and it keeps things dressed down enough to balance out all the beeps, thumps and bass-riffs that Danger Mouse likes to groove on.

On my last Broken Bells review I mentioned the disco-like energy that Danger Mouse and James Mercer infused into the album. Given this album’s title and musical focus, I can only assume they are devoted readers of my blog. Welcome, gentlemen, to our club of dozens!

On many of the tracks it feels like Mercer is channeling Barry Gibb, and I liked it. When Mercer sings the chorus of “Holding On For Life” it feels like he’s trying to make it on the soundtrack for a Saturday Night Fever remake, maybe set on some far flung futuristic world. The title track in particular was a heavy dose of groove, science fiction and a whole lot of fun.

While “After the Disco” was the ‘danciest” of the album’s eleven tracks, the whole thing made me bob my head and look for a dance floor and a disco ball. Regrettably, for the first half I was on the bus and was stuck in a seat with very limited legroom, and for the second half I was walking home, so it didn’t end up being quite as celebratory as it felt in my head.

After a while, all those catchy beats made it hard for me to focus on what Broken Bells was singing about, although the opening track, “Perfect World” had a line that resonated, as Mercer expresses the desire for a little less stress and a little more oblivion:

“I was hoping for
An easy rambling life
Till the notion came to my mind

“We look for exit signs
But we can’t be changed
Into nothing overnight.”

A quick look at the liner notes revealed a lot of other songs with thoughtful lyrics as well, with a focus on people hurting and trying to party through the pain, even as their choices just hollow them out further. the album is aptly named, evoking that tension headache you get when you stayed up too late in an effort to have more fun, even though at some point in the wee small hours you started having less.

Ultimately, as good as it was, I couldn’t get past all that head-bobbing dance music. I get that it is supposed to juxtapose against Mercer’s lyrics, but at times it drowns them out completely. Or maybe it just takes a lot of repeat listens to let it sink in. I suspect it is a bit of both.

The musical influences are interesting, with the ghosts of both the Beatles and the Cure jostling with Sade and the Bee Gees. If you are a devotee of club music but wished it was a bit more self-examined, this is the album for you.

Overall, “After the Disco” is an ambitious record both musically and thematically, and I admired the effort. I enjoyed the music as well, even though it rarely reached down and grabbed me by the heart like I wanted it to.

Best tracks: Perfect World, After the Disco, Holding on For Life, Medicine

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