SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 1: Broken Bells

I caught up with Broken Bells here at Stubbs since they followed Jones with an 11:00 PM set. The new band from the Shins’ James Mercer and Danger Mouse was definitely one of the most buzzed about. This probably comes from the fact that the Shins have quite simply become one of the most influential bands of the 21st century’s first decade. The Broken Bells sound a lot like the Shins, frankly, due to the distinctive voice and talent of James Mercer. But there’s less guitar and more keys and samples, triggered by Mr. Mouse on drums. The band has a groovy if laid back sound that seemed to hold the crowd’s attention fairly well. “Vaporize” and “Mongrel Heart” both have that classic Shins-y vocal from Mercer over a Shins-y type of groove, which seemed to resonate. The last two songs also featured more guitar, which helped build the energy some more, with Danger Mouse also playing guitar at the end over a sampled beat. It wasn’t the dazzling set that SXSWers have come to expect from evening showcases at Stubbs, but this is a new band, so it’s only logical that they might need some time to develop. There’s definitely some potential here, though.


SXSW Music 2010, Day 1: It Begins

The music world converged on Austin, Texas today for what is generally viewed as the biggest, bestest music industry event in the world. The thing that makes SXSW so unique is that you not only know you’re going to see some great bands you’ve had your eye on, but you’re also going to discover some great new bands. There are so many playing all over town all day for four straight days, so you can’t help but just stumble upon some cool new sounds.

This was the case early on when the line to try and see Broken Bells’ 1:00pm Red River garage show was too long to get in. I wandered over to the Mohawk up the street and there was a band throwing down a strong sound with some Neil Young/Crazy Horse vibes, and some of that My Morning Jacket kind of vibe. It was Yukon Blonde from Vancouver BC. Good stuff.

The line at the Forcefield PR/Terrorbird Media day party at Red 7 was also way too long, so again I wandered up the street and heard some Beatles coming out of Jaime’s Spanish Village, a Mexican restaurant across the street from Stubbs BBQ. It has a small patio where The Eggmen where dishing out the Beatles tunes, which sounded great on a warm sunny afternoon. It was a rotating lineup, with seven musicians up there for great readings of “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Fixing a Hole,” “From Me to You” and “All You Need is Love.”

I waited in a crazy 45-minute line to get into the Levis/Fader Fort, because I wanted to see Philadelphia band Free Energy. The band’s studio stuff sounds amazing, but it was too bad they didn’t seem able to match it live. They have great gear, great looks and a great name, but something in the musicianship seemed lacking. Maybe I’ll give them another shot on Friday. The venue was pimped out though, dubbed by one fan as “a funhouse for hipsters.”

Walking past the Independent up the street, I heard the call of a bluesy sound, the Maldives from Seattle were rocking out, also with a Crazy Horse vibe, and maybe some Ryan Adams & the Cardinals influence. The Canadian Blast tent outside by the registrants lounge closed out with Plants and Animals, who blended reverb-y vocals with a cool groove to close their set. Austin’s own Strange Boys packed Emo’s Jr for an 8:00 set of their retro ’60s-style garage rock. There were moments, but I don’t think it was really my thing.

Jonneine Zapata out of Los Angeles caught my attention first with her name and then with her powerful voice at the Red Eyed Fly. This is a great little venue with nice outdoor stage where Zapata and her band rocked the stage with a powerful bluesy sound that recalled Concrete Blonde.

Here We Go Magic packed Club Deville for a 9:00 set. The sound was excellent although the songs kept seeming like they were building up to something that never came. They were doing something right though, as the indie rock crowd seemed to dig it.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings tore up the stage at Stubbs BBQ, with the great band throwing down ’60s and ’70s-influenced funk behind the soul queen. This was the first major highlight of the day.

I caught up with Broken Bells when they followed Jones at Stubbs and James Mercer of The Shins led the band through a collection of tunes that sounded pretty Shins-y, with maybe more synth and less guitar. But when they added some more guitar toward the end, it was even better.

I bailed waiting for Spoon at Stubbs to go back to Emos main for Nas & Damian Marley. Mixing the hip-hop with the reggae was a slamming formula for the really packed crowd, who loved every minute. This is the new duo to watch out for in 2010, what a great set! It was all too brief though, leaving me able to catch the end of Spoon’s set. These guys confuse me. They play three songs in a row that are kind of blah, and then just when you’re about ready to give up on them they throw down a great rocker. Then they play two or three more blah, than some dope groove. Strange formula.

Compared to last year, this first day was so-so at first, picking up toward the end. Things looked primed to pick up tomorrow though, stay tuned…


Broken Bells: Broken Bells

RIYL: Danger Mouse, The Shins, Beck

The latest collaborative project involving the seemingly indefatigable Danger Mouse (billed here under the name his mama gave him, Brian Burton), Broken Bells presents the music press with its first opportunity for hype overload in 2010. One half of Gnarls Barkley teaming up with Shins guitarist and singer James Mercer? Are you kidding? This album doesn’t have a prayer of being reviewed objectively – which is probably why Burton and Mercer kept Broken Bells under wraps until late last year, when they digitally released the album’s first single, “The High Road,” to thunderous online applause.

The full-length is finally here, and here’s the bad news: None of it’s as deliciously addictive as “The High Road.” On paper, Broken Bells looks like the type of album that’s so cracked it either has to be terrific or abysmal, but in reality, it’s just sort of a pleasant listen – which is ultimately disappointing, because if nothing else, you expect to be provoked by any project that places its creative principals in unfamiliar surroundings.


Broken Bells, though, keeps the listener at arm’s length; like a lot of Burton’s work, there’s a coolness about it that starts to feel pretty chilly after a while. The production is undeniably interesting – this is definitely a headphones record – but all the swirling, blooping synths, distortion effects, and layers of ghostly sound can’t obscure the album’s lack of an emotional center. This probably sounds harsher than Bells deserves – it isn’t a bad album at all – but with this much talent in the studio, who wants to award partial credit?

Listening to Bells’ third track, “Your Head Is on Fire,” you’re struck by the beautiful emptiness of it all – spectral vocals floating between stacks of synths and subtle guitars, with Beach Boys harmonies unspooling around sonar sound effects. Problem is, that’s the record in a three-minute nutshell: Sweet pop melodies and a musically adventurous spirit, drowned mercilessly in a sea of frictionless sound. Broken Bells is a pretty enough place to visit, but don’t plan on staying long – or if you do, bring your warmest winter coat. (Sony 2010)

Broken Bells MySpace page


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