Next up in the Listening to Music Without Understanding It series was a post I’ve already thrown back, on Guardians of the Galaxy. So let’s jump ahead to the last couple of posts, when I closed out with the Broken Bells.
I’ve been holding off on writing much about my favorite band. I had a reason. I was seeing them in concert. I figured this would give me some insight, something new and interesting and different to talk about. And I wasn’t wrong.
If you were to ask me who my favorite band is, I might have to think a bit. There are bands I’ve loved for a long time. Bands that have a large amount of good content, that keep being good. But really, if I were forced to answer, I would have to go with the Broken Bells. And maybe, just maybe, some of the hesitation also has to do with the fact that, when I name them, people tend not to know who the heck I’m talking about.
The Broken Bells are the duo of two music creators known for their other work. One is James Mercer, lead singer of The Shins. The other is Brian Burton, better known by his stage name Danger Mouse, better yet known for producing music, such as the Gorillaz’s Demon Days, several albums by The Black Keys, and for being half of the duo Gnarls Barkley. It’s really when I get to mentioning Gnarls Barkley – and more specifically Crazy – that I finally get a dawning of recognition from people as to who the heck I’m talking about with either of these artists.
But music, as with all art, is about more than popularity, and so it is with the Broken Bells and I. And given that you probably don’t much know who they are either, dear readers, I think I am going to take some time with them, so, a couple of posts. I think this will conclude my first series of music posts, as well, as I shared some of the music I love, some of the music that’s big right now, and some ways to think about finding music. I think here first I’m going to dive into some of the question of why I like them: which goes to their skill at making music, the themes and lyrics. The second post, then, will be a bit of a review of their music: both of the concert – which has informed some of my further understanding of the band – and their albums.
Off we go then!
I have been trying to figure out how to best describe the music of the Broken Bells, the lyrics and the themes. I think the best I can think of is it is adult music. Like, music by adults. For adults. So much of music today is for the young, for partying, for public. I imagine this isn’t just true today! Much of the rest of music, then, has to do with love – love found, love lost (and not always necessarily much in-between) – perhaps going back to the poetic roots.
But really, most of life takes place not in these highlight moments – not just in the crazy weekend out with friends, not just in the excitement of a love found, or the heartbreak of a love lost. No, most of life takes place with work, with dreams, in love, or in being lost. Life is a daily thing, that can often drag us down. Or, as the Broken Bells say much better than I can,
“You gotta lead your life,
But you’re not sure you know the way!”
-Broken Bells, The Changing Lights
Enter the Broken Bells. There’s a lot in their music about dealing with disappointment, I would say. That life maybe hasn’t worked out like you thought, that your dreams haven’t all come true, or when they did, they weren’t what you expected.
They don’t leave you there, though. It’s uplifting. Take a chance, still dream the dreams, and dream big – reach for the stars. These themes, these words keep coming up in their music, in a way I noticed even more at the concert: dreams, lights and stars. And the ghosts. Which are not only maybe the external ghosts of the world gone by, but the ghost inside, the thing that keeps us going ourselves.
I think the song that displays this best is one that I’ve only recently really fallen in love with: Vaporize.
Oh, and they’re definitely Musicians
I loved their music too, and if you know some of the other bands I’ve talked about here in my series, maybe you see it. They’re another Alternative Rock band, whatever that really ends up meaning, and they fit into that genre pretty well. But while I liked the music before, I don’t think I really respected it until seeing them live.
As the stage was getting set up, it had this great, futuristic look. These clean, white keyboard stands, and a set of drums. Three keyboard stands. So they had a spot for all four band members. But it wasn’t until they got going that everything came into focus.
Like all the guitars. You had the bassist (or maybe guitarist?) in the back, who also had his keyboard. Oh, and his mic for backup vocals. So he had three instruments. Then there was Mercer himself, with two guitars – electric and acoustic – as well as his keyboard and, of course, his mic. Then you had Danger Mouse, with his main keyboard, as well as an electric guitar for some songs and, for use with the song Medicine, a small xylophone. Oh, and a mic. And then the drummer, with the eponymous drums, as well as a mic.
So it seems like the drummer had the least going on… right up until he and Danger Mouse traded places. This happened a few times during the concert, with Danger Mouse going back to play drums, and the drummer coming up and playing the electric guitar and even the keyboard. And really, I had not thought about how important the drums were to these songs until watching them in action.
They all did three or more things throughout the concert, and it was a sight to see. Other bands might pull this off by being larger, but for the Broken Bells, they do it by being Musicians, with a capital M. They make music, and they do it by knowing how to play instruments, knowing how to sing, knowing how to work together.
It was a sight to behold. Each song another wonder of skill. I’ll likely mention it again next week, but it belongs here too: there’s even a point where Mercer was whistling, which doesn’t seem like a challenge until you think of whistling through a microphone – without causing feedback or driving every dog for 20 miles crazy.
TL;DR: Why Broken Bells?
It’s odd to think of a conclusion here, when I’m planning on talking about the band more, but so it goes. Next week I think I’m going to be highlighting a couple of specific songs, and linking to their music videos. But that leaves me with something else I can include here.
They did a live show on David Letterman, and 12 of the songs (I would imagine that was the whole set for the show?) are all online, on their official channel, in a playlist no less.
It’s not quite the experience we had. For one thing, it’s a lot quieter there than it was for us – in the theater we saw them in, the sound filled the hall, and some of the songs, like Meyrin Fields, were explosive. Also, in the videos, they do closeup stuff and all and you can’t choose where to watch yourself: the musicians in their varying roles, or the awesome visual show they put on to go with it. Nonetheless, this is a good way to see some of what I am talking about, to see this band in action.
And really, if you want one great example, check out the live show of Vaporize, lyrics above, which has Mercer playing the acoustic guitar, Danger Mouse on the drums, the drummer rocking out on the guitar, the bassist playing the keyboard… and it’s just wonderful.