James Mercer (lead singer of The Shins) and Brian Burton (also known as producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse and half of Gnarls Barkley) have teamed up for an unexpected and exceptional first-time musical collaboration, Broken Bells. Their creative chemistry achieved by their inventive ambitions—Mercer’s voice as the primary instrument on the album—is beautifully complemented by the harmonic elements stemming from Danger Mouse’s innate production abilities to punctuate and underscore his partner’s singing gifts. All the music was recorded with live instruments—some parts, which at times sound like samples (such as the ending of “October” which sounds like a Giorgio Moroder piano), are all recorded and give a continuous and unbroken feel to the compositions. The brief album is a collection of short stories that tell a tale of experience and contingency, woven together by effective editing and rhythm patterns.
Piecing the self-titled Broken Bells is a difficult task, simply because listening to the 10-song, less-than forty minute album seems like a really long track, the songs opening and closing into each other with effortless ease. In order to understand the album one should first look at the whole, which turns out to fashion itself as an elaborate, winding narrative. On many of the songs, Mercer sings of difficult emotional circumstances which are at times thematically in opposition to the aerated sound bed on which they rest. Further complicating Mercer’s somber lyrics is the instrumentation, opening up his signature melancholic sound to give it a wider range of depth to both his voice and the accompanying melodies (see “The Ghost Inside,” the expertly arranged Morricone-esque “Mongrel Heart,” and “Citizen”). In opening up the interpretation of the music with its enigmatic lyrics, the album is able to connect with its listeners on the various levels it is approached. Broken Bells’ charm is primarily rooted in this particular dynamic; the album speaks to your current mind frame paralleling the various musical subsets of which it is crafted. The pulsating beats throughout the album accentuate the cohesiveness of the compositions, all of which sound like a variation on a theme—a particularly abstract and idiosyncratic one—that also fits with the cryptic album artwork and in whole the unexpected functioning of the collaboration between Mercer and Burton.
Broken Bells’ album is a foray to an unknown yet eerily familiar world of musical wonderment. It captures many of the positive recipes that make pop music captivating, significant, and a product of its time. With its first single, “The High Road,” Broken Bells pronounced themselves as a different and inventive musical outfit. Every song on the album, well, some more effective than others, never fall from an exceptional standard. The dynamic duo showcase their talents in full effect, crafting a welcome and refreshing debut. This partnership is both a reminiscent retroactive album (due to the use of old synthesizers) as well as a forward-looking concept album (due to the use of new synthesizers and effects that manipulate Mercer’s voice). With Mercer’s tender and fragile vocals juxtaposed with the steady and electronically textured hooks courtesy of Burton, Broken Bells achieve a timeless quality hardly afforded to the mainstay of indie pop. The album, due to its sometimes eroded feelings, is nonetheless profound and proves this distinct quality as it gets better after multiple listens.
This is smart pop, a new threshold that is hardly reached by the dime-a-dozen acts that fail to innovate beyond the already existing. Broken Bells, or should I say James Mercer and Brian Burton have entered into a place of musical bliss, the combination is contagious—they complement one another perfectly and due to this match, produce nothing less than stellar on their self-titled Broken Bells. They incorporate the head nodding aspects of the hip-hop and electronic roots of the work by Brian Burton, harking back to his downtempo and almost ambient work as Pelican City. For James Mercer, this is a natural extension of his work with The Shins, his vocals acquiring great versatility in expression; the timbre and warmth of his voice in constant dialogue with the music—this balance achieved through the intimate understanding of both Burton and Mercer’s musical endeavors. Every moment on Broken Bells is necessary. James Mercer and Brian Burton, in this highly personal project, have nurtured a carefully multilayered array of pleasant sound with slow-moving vocals that capture the best of the worlds of both these talented artists. As Greek philosopher Plato once said: “Those who wish to sing always find a song.” Lucky for us, they also were able to find each other.
For more information about James Mercer and Brian Burton as Broken Bells check out my review of their live performance at the Troubadour in Hollywood, CA on March 14th, 2010.