Look, it’s a guest Weekend Music! One of my very favorite bands is Rush, an addiction picked up from my dad. Which is easy enough to pass along, as they’re celebrating their 40th year this year. Their most recent album was only two years ago, their first concept album – Clockwork Angels.
I wrote a whole series of posts about how I love music but don’t always really understand it. Not so much when it comes to Rush – I feel like I get it. Whether it’s the priests of Syrinx, the black hole of Cygnus X-1, Alph the sacred river, or the Working Man, I’ve got a handle on the metaphors, stories, and mythology going on.
Well, maybe until Clockwork Angels… however, this concept album was more than just the album – they wrote a utopian/dystopian novel to go with it. I’ve reviewed that before, but it ends up at the end with the song above. The Garden. A good life, on your own terms, despite however the world tries to drag you one way or another.
“In this one of many possible worlds…”
I will be seeing Rush this year for their Rush 40th concert tour, and I am incredibly excited. I’ll likely be geeking out more about Rush after that, as part of Eclectic Alli’s “Passionate Geeks” series. Hey, are you reading that series? Go forth and do so!
This is me finishing up my first series of music posts, which have been vaguely connecting through veins of me sharing some of my favorite bands, and talking about how I interact with and find music. Two sides of the same coin, since one of the best ways to find music is through recommendations, and, once recommended, through sampling the music yourself. Hopefully you’ve found someone new or something you like through my writing, because I know your comments and recommendations have helped me find some new music.
So let me know in the comments below what you think of my music series, or the Broken Bells, or who your favorite band is, or really, whatever you like! But for now: Broken Bells!
It’s a Perfect World
As the band came out, it was the vocals that play at the beginning of their recent music video, for Holding on for Life. And on the screen at the back of the stage, projected from a circular mirror array in the middle of the stage, was a reflection of the audience. Spotlights flowed around the audience, which started to bounce and beat and get excited and flow with the start of the music.
The show opened with the first song from their new album, the album they’re touring for, After the Disco. The song is called Perfect World, and it set a stage. The song opens with about a minute of just instrumental, of just them playing. It was a great warm up, a great way to get us in and excited and get things started.
On the screen, they panned away from the audience. Up, into the sky. To the Earth – with a great night sky shot, with all the cities lit up, their own little stars. It pans out further – off and away. Planets. Pulling away further. And then, suddenly, warping away, all with the music.
They took us out, away from home, somewhere else. They took us to a place of sound, of music, away from home and worries, for a while.
For their second song, they played my favorite: The Ghost Inside. I’ve referenced before the power and influence this song holds over me. It was pretty powerful still, it hit me pretty hard. I don’t think I was the only one – there were people dancing in the aisles ahead of us. But honestly? The best part was the end. James Mercer got us all clapping, got us in time. And they flowed, through this time, seamlessly from The Ghost Inside to After the Disco.
After your Faith has let you down,
I know you’ll want to run around,
And follow the crowd into the night,
But after the Disco…
All of the shine
Just faded away
-Broken Bells, After the Disco
It was magical. It was really the beginning of me rethinking their music, of me seeing it in this new light – of them blending and merging their two albums. They did this also on the screens with highlighting a character, mostly a silhouette, of the girl from the Holding on for Life video. I’m not sure if she’s meant to be the same character as Christina Hendricks was in The Ghost Inside – I would understand, I imagine she’s harder to get in a music video these days. Nonetheless, she became this recurring character throughout our journey for the evening.
Their first pause was after After the Disco. Not much, but enough to name the song before they played it: Mongrel Heart. A song I was pleased to see made the cut to the concert: it’s part of the strong finish to their first album, but not necessarily a song that stands entirely on its own. I mean, part of what’s great is how it fades into The Mall and the Misery…
So, they transitioned it into The Mall and the Misery.
They did a lot with light during the show. Projections like stars on the theater ceiling, projected rays of light while we were warping away into space. Darkness between songs. It was after The Mall and the Misery that they first did one of their big shifts during the silence: suddenly, they were in a new position.
The artists, writ large.
With Danger Mouse in a seat, playing the guitar, and Mercer next to him singing (and later, whistling), they played The Angel and the Fool. A beautiful song, and fun in the presentation as well. I saw it, and felt I just had to get out my phone (limping along on its last few percent of power) and snap a photo. I love how it turned out.
I won’t drag on and talk about every song they played – they eventually got in 18 (I think) of their 25 songs from their albums. Pretty good representation! Continue reading →
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 themusic I love, some of the music that’s bigrightnow, 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.
If you haven’t had a chance to see Guardians of the Galaxy yet, might I suggest checking it out? I have been blogging on Sourcerer about 2 things: comics and music. This movie is a perfect combination of those two things.
Previously, it seems like it’s Zack Snyder who had a hold on good use of music in comic-book type movies, especially Watchmen and Sucker Punch. But those movies were a lot darker: Guardians of the Galaxy has great music, and used it to generate a sense of fun, as well as emotional depth.
You can see some of how they use music in the first trailer, with the now iconic use of Hooked on a Feeling. I also think this is a perfect sort of character: it introduced the characters, the movie, and left it pretty much there without giving much away. I avoided other trailers after this one, and just saw the movie from there!
I will say, I do include the second theatrical trailer below, for music purposes. I’ll hit a spoiler section where this is appropriate; but the second trailer gave a lot away so know that. But for now, a couple of the reasons that Guardians of the Galaxy was good, in relation to its use of music!
Music as a Character
From the first moments of the movie, we can see that our lead character, Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt), loved and loves music. He was getting lost in music as a kid, and, after being abducted, clearly kept this obsession.
He ends up in space for the rest of his life, or at least so far, and his only connections to Earth are his memories (constantly referenced through pop culture), a couple of artifacts (trolls!), and his music.
One cassette. A mix tape, made by his mom, who died right before he was abducted. So it is not only the connection to Earth, to the life he lost, but to his mother, the family he knew. The music stands in for Earth, for family, for love. I used the word obsession, and I think for Peter Quill, this is probably just right.
But it’s more than that. The music functions almost as a character in the movie. It reminds us of the mother who left the music for Peter, it grounds us on the Earth we know even as we experience the cosmic Marvel Universe that is exploding off of the comic page onto the big screen. Because even as these recognizable songs play, you realize they’re not just a soundtrack: they’re the songs Peter has with him.
Putting Our Best Foot Forward
In the comics, as with a lot of science fiction, we come to find that humanity is far behind when it comes to technology. Indeed, this is a major plot in The Avengers, as Nick Fury talks about how they were working on advanced weapons technology because they had found out how powerful the rest of the galaxy seemed to be. Blame Loki, I guess; everyone else does…
Often, it’s human pluck and determination that stands out, or human ingenuity, inventiveness, and diversity. Vague notions to make us feel good about ourselves, and staples of science fiction. It’s rare that something specific gets held up as a special thing from humanity, something that the alien species encountered like from humanity.
Guardians of the Galaxy give us that something. Music. I can point out three examples:
The guy who takes the headphones, seen in the trailer. He puts them on, listens, and keeps them. Even shirking his guard duty, completely oblivious to the station falling apart around him. He likes the music.
Gamora. Both in the middle of the film, when Peter is introducing the music to her (and suggests dancing), and you can see her get into the music. So much so that she lets her guard down. And then later on, when she is listening to the music on the ship, and starts dancing.
Groot. The number one take-away meme from this movie is going to be Groot. I guess to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that.
We can conjecture some of it too. Peter grew up with the Ravagers, and kept his stuff – and kept the Walkman running! – throughout this time. Surely they were exposed to it as well. Also, Peter seems to have a pretty extreme rakish side to him. You can see him potentially sharing his music with women – like he did with Gamora – and having them fall in love with it as well.
I love that there is something of humanity, something of our society and culture, that stands out on the galactic stage. And more than that, I love that the thing that stands out is our music.