James Mercer and Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) want their project Broken Bells to be seen, and heard, as an honest-to-goodness band, not a side-project dalliance. It's a little tricky to do that when first listening to their self-titled debut album, since they're such well-known and distinctive talents: Mercer crafted singularly bittersweet indie pop with the Shins, while Burton brought the Beatles and Jay-Z together on The Grey Album and went on to shape sounds for equally omnivorous artists like Beck and Gorillaz. Mercer's songwriting skills and Danger Mouse's production mastery sound like a potent combo, and they are, when the pair balances its ambitions and respective strengths. They work hard -- maybe too hard -- at avoiding their previous sounds. Mercer's vocals and melodies will almost certainly evoke the Shins to some degree or another, but he and Burton steer clear of the bright pop that countered that band's gloomier moments in favor of winding melodies and mellow atmospheres. While these songs don't feel as confessional as Mercer's work with his other band, they strive for an intimacy that the lush production and arrangements tend to distance. At times, this makes for intriguing contrasts: “Citizen” presents its small melody in lavish surroundings -- it’s hazy bedroom pop, if that bedroom were in a five-star hotel with 1000-thread-count sheets. Too often, though, Broken Bells’ songs aren’t as compelling as the trappings around them, though touches like “October”’s wah-wah piano and “Your Head Is on Fire”’s zero-gravity synths are enjoyable in their own right. When Burton and Mercer get their styles to really mix, instead of just share the same space, they live up to their potential. “The High Road” melds slick electronic percussion and a searching, minor-key melody into something that echoes the duo’s previous work without rehashing it. “The Ghost Inside” is especially exciting, pushing Mercer outside of his comfort zone by pairing his falsetto with wobbly keyboards and strings. Toward the end, Broken Bells break out of their meandering with “Mongrel Heart” and “The Mall & the Misery,” which, after a lengthy expanse of strings and horns, closes the album with some crisp chamber pop. Somewhat surprisingly, Broken Bells is an honest-to-goodness debut album -- there are as many promising flashes as frustrating moments here. Mercer and Burton have obvious chemistry, but they need to blend more for true alchemy.
Broken Bells Review
by Heather Phares