Mar 12, 2010 Web Exclusive
Sometimes following the career of Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) is kind of like watching Winona Ryder's dating life: it's fascinating to see who will turn up next, but at the same time, there's always the lingering desire to see him pick one and stick with it. Broken Bells finds Burton teaming with The Shins frontman James Mercer, and though the results aren't the star-crossed, love-at-first-sight, hit-making combo Danger Mouse created with Cee-Lo in Gnarls Barkley, they're more than interesting enough to carry a whole album.
Mercer's pop touch has always seemed effortless, usually a sign of a great deal of effort. Burton has always left the nuts and bolts of his music exposed; it seems he wants the listener to hear the work that went into it. This became apparent on his Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album, and has been a hallmark of his work ever since. The Broken Bells opener, "The High Road" sets the tone, with Burton's busy sound collages backing Mercer's tender vocals, which turn into a typical Burton sing-along when the chorus comes around.
What's fascinating about Broken Bells is how these two pure and individual talents combine while still remaining intact. It's a math problem that doesn't work out somehow, with one plus one equaling both one and two. This ends up being a blessing at times, with some songs reinforcing the strengths of both, such as the hypnotically pleasant "Your Head's On Fire," which recalls dreamy late-'60s radio hits and the closing "The Mall & Misery" and its ferocious guitar hook. On other tracks, however, the result sounds too much like what each has done on his own. "The Ghost Inside," in particular, could easily be on a Gnarls Barkley or Gorillaz album, featuring heavily measured beats and climbing rhythms with Burton's fingerprints all over them.
However, even the weaker songs contain moments that make one stop and take notice. During "The Ghost Inside," for example, this happens for the first time at around the 1:40 mark, when a creepy doubling and tripling of the vocals combines with a strange echo and some of Mercer's excellent, inscrutable lyrics, "You call it chivalry/Never pull a punch for free/You never wonder why/They have to move on."
Broken Bells produces enough magic for one to hope Burton and Mercer don't move on quite yet, but stick around for another few dates. (www.brokenbells.com)
Author rating: 7/10
Average reader rating: 8/10
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