After The Disco sounds like a groovy early 80’s record sung by a folk singer. James Mercer, best known for his work with The Shins, teamed up with Danger Mouse in 2009 to form the difficult-to-define Broken Bells. Not quite indie rock, not quite space rock, but somewhere in between, and layered in that pseudo-eighties style you’d hear in the soundtrack of Drive or Hotline Miami.
Elements of folk-rock (not doubt Mercer’s influence) do cling desperately to some of these tracks, but despite providing the most emotionally stirring moment of this album with “Leave it Alone” it often feels out of place in amongst the synths and vocals that are drowning in reverb.
Contributions by producer and multi-instrumentalist Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) are evident in the generally nice sense of rhythm After The Disco achieves.
Danger was thrust into prominence in 2004 with his acclaimed Grey Album, a mash up of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album (yes, that really happened). Since then he’s become the go-to-guy of music that just makes you move, producing albums such as Demon Days by the Gorillaz, El Camino by The Black Keys and founding the funk-soul duo Gnarls Barkely along with CeeLo Green.
The best combination of Mercer’s reliably unique delivery and Danger’s flare for production comes in the opener, “Perfect World.” For the first few seconds, a dark, ambient atmosphere is presented, but quickly unfurls into a cool synth melody, creating a style that almost the entire record goes on to replicate. This song offers the first glimpse of the many, many, many uses of female backing vocals throughout this record. An interestingly disjointed guitar solo fades so seamlessly into the final section you barely even notice it, like you’ve accidentally tripped into the second track.
“Holding On For Life” sounds far too Bee Gees for my taste. “Leave It Alone” offers a brief respite from the wave of synths, and I guarantee that by “The Changing Lights” you’ll want to never hear a female backing vocals again – seriously, you could’ve given it a rest guys. The flat rhythm section of this song contrasts weirdly with the smooth production of the rest of this album.
“Lazy Wonderland” and “No Matter What You’re Told” are definite highlights, along with the opening track. “Lazy Wonderland” features a cool, medium-paced watery melody under the vocals and an abstract beat, and quickly gets straight into the verse without any of that “introduction” nonsense slowing it down. Each of its three sections feels distinct and unique and brings different moods to the table.
“No Matter What You’re Told” by contrast is one of the most danceable tracks on this album. The chorus is catchy as hell, and that heavy synth bass is a nice change of pace from the standard grooved bass lines that dominates pretty much every other track.
The second to last song, “The Angel And The Fool” however sounds like a mediocre The Shins track built around a chord progression we’ve all heard a billion times before. Strangely enough though, it’s probably the most enjoyable instance of that done-to-death female backing. Funny how these things work out, huh?
It’s no surprise that After The Disco rarely goes anywhere near standard indie rock. Instead its sound falls in the spectrum of Reflektor by Arcade Fire, an album that was itself produced by famed alternative-dance icon, James Murphy, formerly of LCD Soundsystem.
Though unlike Reflektor, After The Disco sounds less like it was meant to be a good album by design, and more like it just happened to be good. Broken Bells are expressing themselves in a less artificial way, which though doesn’t always entirely succeed, offers enough enjoyable moments to achieve a couple of thumbs up and a somewhat-but-not-entirely-awkward smile.
Mercer’s delivery is generally good, Danger Mouse’s production is generally tight, but it just never crosses that threshold into greatness, despite a few glimmers of that potential. Too often though, these glimmers are drowned out by mediocrity. This record just feels like it should’ve been better than it is.
After The Disco is so close to being what it should have been that it hurts. It’s a fun record at times, and make no mistake its worth a listen, but the talent behind Broken Bells just doesn’t fulfill its potential. James Mercer and Danger Mouse have proven themselves great musicians in their own projects, but together their personality just seems to fall apart. And that’s what they need in their future endeavors together, more personality – AND FOR GOD SAKE DITCH THE BACKING VOCALS. F$@!.
The break from the standard picture of indie rock is welcome, and Mercer’s voice fits well into the synth soundscape, but there’s just not enough here to fully get into. This record was good, but the sparse few great moments left me not so much longing for more, but longing for what After The Disco should’ve been.
Reviewer: Lachlan Vass
IRC: Lucy Patton
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