Review: Broken Bells can't quite make all the songs ring

Broken Bells

Album artwork for Broken Bells' "After the Disco." (Handout / February 3, 2014)

"After the Disco"

Broken Bells

2 1/2 (out of 4)

Broken Bells' "After the Disco" (Columbia), the second album between the Shins' James Mercer and serial collaborator Danger Mouse, is more cohesive but not necessarily better than their 2010 self-titled debut.

As usual, the music revels in the details that have informed Mercer's well-crafted pop-rock songs and Danger Mouse's hip-hop-flavored productions for the likes of Gnarls Barkley and Beck. Keyboards float in cloudlike layers above sleek rhythm tracks with propulsive, melodic bass lines.

As he did on Broken Bells' debut, Mercer pushes his voice into an upper register; he's positively Barry Gibb-like on "Holding on for Life." It makes for a late-night neosoul vibe, a mood album that suits the 3 a.m. atmosphere suggested by the album title.

"Ashes on the ground/ The world is burning down/ After the disco/ All of the shine just faded away," Mercer croons on the title track, the sound of the dance floor celebration melting into the shadows. The narrator in these songs sounds burned out and a little desperate. He even solicits a hooker in "Holding on for Life" to serve as sort of a street corner therapist.

The romanticized sense of burnout is coupled with first-rate pop songs on the first half of the album: the mournful backing vocals in "Leave It Alone" drifting over finger-picked guitar and fluttering flutelike keyboards; the dance of the interlocking rhythms on "The Changing Lights"; the way Mercer's melancholy vocals play against the seemingly lighthearted bounciness of "Control."

But the songs start to drag as the album winds down, with some unwanted flashbacks to the stiff, ersatz pop of the '80s. "The Angel and the Fool" plays like a cliche of a saloon ballad, complete with wan whistling. "The Remains of Rock & Roll" collapses beneath the weight of a syrupy string arrangement.

Had Broken Bells combined the best songs from their two albums, they would have made a heck of a statement. As it is, they offer promising glimpses of what might have been.

greg@gregkot.com
CHICAGO

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