Album Reviews

Broken Bells – After the Disco

on February 03, 2014, 12:01am
brokenbellsdiscoLP D+
Release Date
February 04, 2014
Label
Columbia
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd
Buy it on amazon

Whatever happened to our indie rock and roll?

Broken Bells release their sophomore album, After the Disco, amid a climate that should be asking this question but doesn’t seem to be. Why? Well, the independent music scene has fractured beyond recognition, to the point that pop music is successfully re-branded as an alternative, major labels hold just as much credibility as indies, and the artists that were once heralded as saviors for both traditional pop songwriting and good taste are now acting as reactionaries, maybe in natural response to their sound falling out of fashion, or maybe deliberately following trends.

Look at this year alone, as Dum Dum Girls dropped the punk influence in favor of synth tones of ’80s Britpop and dark wave. Warpaint went jammy experimental and claimed hip-hop made ‘em do it. Both released good albums, but both moved farther away from the guitar-based indie rock that got them to where they are.

Would The Shins really sound that bad if Chutes Too Narrow or Oh, Inverted World came out today? It’s hard to believe that sound is something to retreat from, that it isn’t timeless. Good songs, even ones with fairly straightforward guitars and production, hold up. They sounded like they meant something to James Mercer, the band’s songwriter, and as a result became songs that could change your life. Instead of this kind of huge aspiration, After the Disco tests the water to see if the titular genre, as well as ’80s arena soft rock a la Phil Collins, are also timeless. Spoiler alert: They aren’t.

There is a blueprint for this sort of thing, the successful one of the Postal Service, which managed to take a different sad song-slinging guitar guy and make him dance floor ready. The major difference is that the electronics of Dntel weren’t as backward facing and tied to his signature as Danger Mouse’s pop arrangements are. Basically, the Postal Service seemed fresh, though a bit cheesy, because it was fresh. From a sonic and production perspective, we’ve heard Broken Bells with Portugal. the Man, and with Electric Guest, and with Rome, and probably on plenty more. At this point, it isn’t just unexciting–it’s becoming associated with average-at-best albums.

Broken Bells is at least wise enough to put its best foot forward. Opener “Perfect World” is a crowd-pleasing mover, four-on-the-floor steady and featuring a strong enough Mercer melody to look past the goofy tone on the electric guitar solo or the “Final Countdown”-iness of the breakdown and instrumental jam-out that seems to take place in clouds made of laser beams or some shit. As a one-off, and not as a mission statement, it is fun and harmless, as enjoyable and ultimately inconsequential as Mercer’s recent highlights. But an album of disco and disco-influenced songs begins to sound desperate and tasteless quickly.

It’s ironic that one of last year’s most exciting looks into the hopeful future of music was called “Control”, and here it is the epitome of tired, lazy songwriting. The funky, telegraphed beat is Michael Jackson, the melody of Foster the People, the horns the disco-pop revival of last year. But Daft Punk, or earlier LCD Soundsystem, took disco and made it something new, something their own. Mercer whining about how girls are hard to understand on song after song isn’t making something new; it’s re-branding.

Broken Bells COS for article

Artwork by Matthew Vidalis (Buy prints + more)

The album’s worst moments, “The Remains of Rock & Roll” and “Holding on for Life”, suffer for the cliche, near-parody of their obvious sonics. But the lyrics, lacking in subtlety or nuance, either overly specific or vaguely meaningless, sound like they were an afterthought. And hearing Mercer talk to Rolling Stone, the whole album sounds hasty, like a craft project and not like art. It sounds like they were making a product. And maybe that is fine, as it is for pop, and apparently every former indie-affiliated artist is actually a pop artist. Look at Future Islands claiming to have made a pop record, or Dum Dum Girls saying the same thing. Saying this means you don’t have to make art; pop doesn’t even demand a good album. This gets away from the rockist ideal that music should be more than that and the indie rock ideal that this is all that matters.

Ideally, both exist in harmony. In the midst of a massive upswing for pop ideals, independent artists need to lead a creative resurgence, not just join the party and cash the check. This is much as we had against the previous disco run with punk and hip-hop. When pop again had seeped into rock and roll with hair metal in the late ’80s, with nu metal and the TRL scene of the later ’90s, we had Nirvana and the beginning of modern indie, and then the rise of Pitchfork indie to wipe those eras clean. There has to be something brewing if disco is making a legitimate comeback. It only makes sense that when pop music takes over the consciousness like this, there is a reaction.

Now, it is dangerous to accept the premise that disco sucks as dogma, mostly because the late-’70s backlash to the country’s most popular genre is widely thought to be full of homophobic, sexist, and racial subtext. But even if this is true, many of the precepts of disco (excess, superficiality, and recklessness) are worth opposing, not unlike the EDM culture that is becoming more mainstream and influential on our pop music and general culture today.

So what if Mercer and Burton are updating an unpopular sound? That would be within reason if they were actually updating it, but they aren’t. The songs, sonically and structurally, don’t sound contemporary at all. At best, they sound like disco by way of these two artists, both of whom have been making similar songs for five, maybe ten years. “Lazy Wonderland” sounds like a less emotionally stimulating version of the Shins’ slower songs. Nearly every song has Burton’s indie rock choir thing that he uses too much. And just the practicality of this project — imagining Mercer in his sports coat, bald, singing these boogie-down numbers — would make Win Butler look like John Travolta in 1979.

Broken Bells is more forgivable for Danger Mouse, as he just seems to be on autopilot from project to project, and with U2 up next, we’ll see whether he reminds us why we like him (The Grey Album) or why we don’t talk much about him anymore.

Mercer’s first collaboration with Danger Mouse showed such promise with the flawed, murky song on the Dark Night of the Soul album, “Insane Lullaby”, where every bit of it gleamed with beauty and shriveled simultaneously in decay. It was inspired. If he’s not writing with that same fire anymore, which seems to be the case, he could at least not sell out his melodic gifts for a prime Coachella payday and more time to keep us half-interested in the next disappointing Shins album. The rest of us will wait for something new to be excited about, something that seems to matter to the artists and that makes us excited about the future, rather than be forced to remember a past that was questionable at best the first time around.

Essential Tracks: N/A

35 comments

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Anonymous
July 9, 2014 at 2:47 am

Get, another angst filled critic, nitpicking anything and everything possible to spill their “creative” writing all over the place.

B
April 28, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Wipe away your mascara tears. He’s right. As a fan of the (brilliant) Shins and of the last Broken Bells record, this one is definate SELL OUT!! Its as if some soccer mom in spandex and leg warmers hypnotized him and told him he was the Be gees. And James Mercer is awesome so this one leaves me scratching my head and praying for a U turn… but the cover’s pretty.

Dominic
February 14, 2014 at 4:09 am

I was with a group of ten friends the other night listening to this album and every single one of us enjoyed it. I sometimes wonder if critics actually have the ability to enjoy art or if they have just constantly enslaved by their own analysis and filters. What a pointless profession.

Christian R
February 9, 2014 at 11:43 pm

D+? What. Just because it is different then their past sound doesn’t mean it’s worse. Stream “Perfect World” on Spotify now!!

Broken Bells – After the Disco

Mario
February 9, 2014 at 8:30 pm

I have a totally different view on this. “After The Disco” brings something refreshing to the current state of music and it brings back the old disco/dance/funk vibe from the past and makes it contemporary. “Holding On For Life” is the perfect example of just that. http://smarturl.it/BBHOFLh

Anonymous
August 1, 2014 at 2:10 am

My sentiments exactly, never felt like a selling out listening to the album. Felt more like a tip of the hat to musical ages gone past with their own personal spin on the experience going into the future.

David
February 8, 2014 at 7:02 pm

and this is why i hate music critics… pretentious and insufferable review of a very good — NOT GREAT — but quite good album that doesn’t mesh with this person’s annoyingly stated agenda

Christian Hagen
February 8, 2014 at 4:57 pm

This review shows a failure on the critic’s part to measure their expectations and consider the art for itself. First, “indie rock” is such a vague umbrella term that lamenting the turn that the genre is taking is facetious and impossible to define. “Indie rock” has so little meaning as a descriptor at this point that you can’t define it at all, let alone define something against it. Second, Broken Bells is not, nor has it ever been, considered an “indie rock” project, and the bizarre notion that they’re somehow perpetuating a shift away from a sound that can’t be defined is made further absurd when you lump in a group that is so clearly trying for something else.

Third, comparing the group to outfits like The Postal Service works only in the barest terms, in that the project consists of one musician known for being part of a now-defunct indie band around a decade ago and a producer known for crafting their own unique sound. But sonically, they couldn’t be more different. The Postal Service, while replete with electronics, aimed for spare atmospherics and lonely basement recordings. Broken Bells, and indeed most of Danger Mouse’s production work, is fuller and richer and grander. You might be sick of his “indie rock choir thing” (I’m not), but that same sound dispels the comparisons you make to other artists throughout. It simply isn’t like anything by The Postal Service, or Dum Dum Girls, or LCD Soundsystem.

This whole piece comes across as deeply rockist, insisting that a throwback sound (if that’s what this is, a point of which I’m not convinced) is a negative, unless of course that sound is a throwback to something the reviewer already likes. The only line in the entire review that didn’t smack of false nostalgia for a bygone era of “indie rock and roll” was the reference to “Control,” which both changes the point of the review (if there is a point; it’s so unfocused that after what seems to be a pretty clear thesis statement in the first couple paragraphs, it wanders along other seemingly disconnected criticisms before winding down to a tired slap at meanness) and misses the point of why “Control” was so well received. It wasn’t a glimpse at the “future of music,” it was just a really finely crafted, intense verse, which, if anything, was more of a throwback to a bygone era of diss verses from the 90s than any sort of forward-thinking revolution of music.

The reviewer seems to desperately want to go back and listen to The Shins, and I hope for his sake he does, so that other critics can focus on what IS rather than what WAS.

Philip Cosores
February 8, 2014 at 6:10 pm

I appreciate this in-depth comment, I’ll address the points as you’ve listed them. 1. Indie Rock is a term that may not be definable, but everyone knows what you are talking about when you say it. James Mercer was one of the central figures of 2000’s indie rock, his song’s appearance in Garden State was a key moment in that period in terms of seeing a style of music reach a lot more people. So, with him now making this music, I think that framework is pretty understandable. 2. Broken Bells is on a major label and they have radio aspirations, but they are still marketed much like an indie band, looking for blog support and the like. Not to say there are only two types of rock music, and lines are often blurred, but they tend to hinge on commercial and artistic aspirations. 3. The Postal Service comparison ends at what the band is, as you’ve described. I would throw on that they are making dance music-inspired sounds too. And all the comparisons I make are not saying that Broken Bells is like x,y,or z in a 1:1 comparison. I make the comparisons for the point that they are used for and that’s it. Your need to extend those comparisons beyond that is your own issue and something you should break as a reader. 4. The idea of rockism is ridiculous, as it criticizes people making a caricature of other forms of music, while turning the rockists into caricatures themselves. But yeah, this is a way complex subject, but know that I do hold the idea of music as art over the idea of music as entertainment. Throwback sounds that don’t update for the current time are rarely good things, as they lack creativity in addition to good taste. There are exceptions, but Broken Bells isn’t one of them. 5. Control excited people for the future of hip hop by getting back to the competitive foundations. It wasn’t nostalgia, it was people pumped to see Kendrick on fire and hopefully get his peers to try and reach similar levels. So yeah, that. Thanks for the response though, and I believe I will listen to Chutes Too Narrow again.

Bonapart
February 6, 2014 at 2:28 am

Philip Cosores, I’ve now had a chance to give the album a decent amount of engaged listens and I want to let you know that you’re completely right. Haters gonna hate.

Adam Lubicz
February 5, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Some points are valid like some indie bands changing musical styles, but, the last shins album was the opposite of a disappointment. That’s where you lost me good ol’ Philip

Nathan Naimark
February 5, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Was is a great album? No. Was it a decent album? Yes. While there were no songs that blew me away, it was still an enjoyable record to listen to. I can understand giving it a B or maybe B-, but a D+ is a bit too low.

Matt
February 4, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Alright, guys. Enough. You can call the reviewer bitter, but all of you are on the complete opposite side of the spectrum and are coming off needlessly defensive and fanboy-ish.

Personally, Ilove both of these artists and of the first Broken Bells record (which I think is underrated), so I understand wanting to defend them. Yet, as much as I really wanted to like this record, and as much as you may act as though the reviewer is in personal-attack mode, I completely agree with him (except for the part about ‘The Remains of Rock and Roll’ which I think is the best track). And I assure you, I have no personal motives.

I think the album sounds flat and empty; the melodies are way below the James Mercers usual [awesome] standard, as are the uninspired lyrics. Also, as with most current-day pop music, the production is too shiny and, coupled with the fact that all the instrumentation is pushed down/hidden far below the vocals, nothing stands out (which is quite odd for Danger Mouse; see Demon Days). It just feels like Broken Bells Lite; as though two imitators, familiar with their style but lacking in the depth only the true artists could have, released this record.

Now, I’m the sure the reviewer, as with myself, is curious of your opinion’s as to WHY you like this record, as opposed to just shouting that you do and that any disagreements are the result of ulterior motives.

Joel Burns (@Joel_Burns148)
February 4, 2014 at 5:16 am

Any review that says Holding On For Life is one of the worst songs is invalid. I stopped reading right after I saw that. Thank you. This album is incredible people.

calvinsage
February 3, 2014 at 11:48 pm

This is the most poorly conceived album review I’ve ever read.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: the album is actually awesome. Please don’t listen to this tasteless critic.

Anonymous
February 3, 2014 at 7:52 pm

You sure this review didn’t get mixed up with the Warpaint one?

Brett Marks
February 3, 2014 at 5:33 pm

I personally loved the new Broken Bells album!!!! You can stream it via iTunes before it comes out!!!

http://smarturl.it/AfterTheDiscoStream

mikedoub
February 3, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Yikes. I thought this was pretty ok, if not as good as the first.

Anonymous
February 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm

also…how is this even “indie rock” – Broken Bells is signed to COLUMBIA FUCKING RECORDS.

this review is such a joke.

Philip Cosores
February 4, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Both artists got their start in the independent music scene. That’s where a lot of their core audience remains.

Anonymous
February 3, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Is there even a single synth on that Dum Dums record? Maybe there are one or two I’m forgetting, but surely there must be a better example of a guitar band shedding its roots.

Philip Cosores
February 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Dum Dums use guitars but they don’t sound like guitars

Scott Aaron Dransfield Jr.
February 3, 2014 at 1:10 pm

The review does come off as kind of bitter, but I totally get your point and agree with it. I miss the guitars.

Anonymous
February 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm

I started reading this blog in it’s very very early stages, when no one knew your name. A review like this is crazy and so self righteous. you’re putting this album in the same category as Chinese Democracy and Paris Hilton’s DJ shit. Do me a favor, go find the nearest counter space, railing, or ledge – hold on tight, get a grip, and don’t let go until you come back to reality. What the hell is going on here? I haven’t even heard the album yet, but those first two singles are NOT D+ material. Are you telling me every single record on that album is shit?

Dear god…someone please pull CoS’s heads out of their asses.

Still love you guys and hope you can get it together…

037Hernandez
February 5, 2014 at 12:42 pm

lmao. couldn’t have come up with a better, wittier reply if i tried. spot on accurate too

Adam Lubicz
February 5, 2014 at 4:43 pm

That’s great. It was right when the site changed the interface, which I love, they got self righteous.

Rich
February 3, 2014 at 11:58 am

Bloody hell, this is so far off the mark it’s not even moderately amusing. I suggest you try a new field of work if this is what you’re coming out with.

Anonymous
February 3, 2014 at 9:39 am

Honestly does the superbowl make you butt hurt hipsters so upset that this is what we are forced to read the next day?

Anonymous
February 3, 2014 at 9:20 am

No essential tracks is an incredible kiss of douche

Anonymous
February 3, 2014 at 9:16 am

wow, this album better suck because D is a horrible grade and I would hate for some other album to get a C and be way worse than this one … which I totally expect to happen.

Kristin
February 3, 2014 at 7:25 am

What a critic! I am curious to know of this critic’s musical accomplishments. His comments seem like that of a blndly faithful Jack White fan.

Gabe Halverson
February 3, 2014 at 3:17 am

This is one of the most butt hurt reviews I have read in a long time and I haven’t even heard the album yet. I get it you don’t much care for the idea of a modernized disco album, if it’s not LCD Sound system of Daft Punk. Are you seriously bringing the problems of the seventies into a an album review. That would be like complaining that everyone in the 21st century dub step culture has no social skills because we listen to dub step. So don’t listen to it because you will word vomit on everyone. What did they do to make you so angry. If you can’t listen to artists that copy the sounds of other artists then good luck trying to listen to anything. Almost everyone does it including Arcade Fire, LCD Sound system and you don’t seem to have a problem with them. So they didn’t change the world with this album, all I want is good music.

conditionals
February 3, 2014 at 1:32 am

Not so sold on Broken Bells, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on Danger Mouse. For me, his production is always exciting. I honestly love the sounds he evokes from each artist, even if they do all sound a bit samey. I don’t care if he’s on autopilot if that flight path sounds do good.

Philip Cosores
February 3, 2014 at 2:10 am

Fair enough.

Túlio Silva
February 3, 2014 at 10:50 pm

LOL….. PHILIP COSORE…. when you said “Fair enough.”…. in my high mind… after some pot… and after listen the disco e read your critic….. and read the coment… listen to you saying “Fair enough”, it’s is just this…. “Fair enough”

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