Collaborations between artists in the music industry have always been commonplace and no more so than now. However, over the years I’ve often wondered at artist’s motives for getting together and who emerges better off. There have certainly been some interesting pairings and one that comes to mind is smooth-groover R. Kelly (the man behind songs ‘Sex Me’, ‘Bump N’ Grind’, ‘Feelin’ On Yo Booty’) and titanic-lunged Celine Dion when they teamed up to record the saccharine ballad ‘I’m Your Angel’ . This song went straight to the top of the Hot Adult Contemporary Chart (whatever that is) but surely R. Kelly fans were somewhat traumatised?
And it’s almost a surreal moment when Phil Collins’ ecclesiastically-edged voice, as familiar as a kindly old uncle’s, turns up on rap band Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s track “Home”. Must have done wonders for Phil’s street cred. This isn’t the ‘official video’ but you’ll see what I mean at the 1:18 mark….
To me, the world of strange collaborations is aptly illustrated by Run-DMC and Aerosmith. When asked by Aerosmith’s producer, Rick Rubin, if they would rap the lyrics to the Aerosmith song “Walk This Way”, DMC’s immediate response was ‘Motherfucker, this is hillbilly gibberish.’ (gleaned courtesy of Rolling Stone). As you know, they got over it and “Walk This Way” went on to change the face of rap by introducing the genre to a wider mainstream audience.
When a collaboration works it can be a wondrous thing, sort of like having your cake and eating it too. Sometimes the collaboration works so well that the new relationship moves past the honeymoon phase and into slippered contentment. Broken Bells is one such partnership. One half of Broken Bells is Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) who is a serial collaborator with the midas touch. You’ll recognise this tune Danger Mouse recorded with Cee Lo Green:
The other half of Broken Bells is indie-rock god James Mercer, frontman of Oregon band, The Shins. The Shins have produced four studio albums, all to some serious raving from critics. Here’s a tune from their latest album ‘Port of Morrow’:
On March the 9th 2010 Broken Bells released their debut self-titled LP. I find this album incredibly addictive, with Burton enhancing Mercer’s sound in a way that the end result is neither a Shins album nor a Danger Mouse album. It’s a very short listen at 38 minutes but, in some ways, that always leaves me wanting more – perhaps that’s the point of it? And, of course, we have the joy of letting Mercer’s capable voice wash over us.
Each track is likeably different from the one before it. These songs are not just simple, catchy, poppy songs – there are little tidbits to be found hiding in most of them. They change tack, often temporarily, without losing us along the way. I’m getting slightly boffinish on you now but have a listen to the languorous, sweeping ‘Citizen” (one of my favourite tracks of 2010) and you’ll hear a distinct change at 2:35 into it. This needs to be played with big volume (!).
Similarly, ‘Mongrel Heart’ morphs at 2.11 into something resembling the score of a spaghetti western. It doesn’t sound cheesy or out of place as, by track 8, you’re used to the unexpected changes in direction.
The most popular tracks on ‘Broken Bells’ are instantly likeable opener ‘The High Road’ and pumping ‘The Ghost Inside’. To me, ‘Broken Bells’ is an everyday and anytime album. It’s not self-indulgent and it wants to be shared.
Broken Bells released a four track EP called ‘Meyrin Fields’ in April 2011. Although it’s a pleasant listen, it certainly hasn’t bowled me over. It lacks the infectiousness and jubilant feel of the LP. I’m waiting for their next full-length release which should be out sometime this year.
In the meantime the two halves of Broken Bells are busy with their other lives. Have a listen to The Shins’ latest album ‘Port of Morrow’ or Danger Mouse’s collaboration with SparkleHorse called ‘Dark Night of the Soul’.