The story’s pretty familiar by now: James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) meet up after playing some live music, start hammering out some tunes, and form a mighty conglomeration of hip-rock. (That means rock that is hip, not hip-hop fashioned into rock. FYI.)
The problem with many of these intriguing music duos and super bands is that the novelty wears out fast, and all you’re left with is months of hype. A great single and a few magazine interviews and people start believing the project is gonna be the next incarnation of Golden Smog instead of the next Velvet Revolver.
Fortunately for the ears and hearts of millions of hipsters, Broken Bells falls comfortably in the middle, neither a brilliant explosion of musical originality nor a cesspool of forgettable, self-indulgent crap. It earns the cliché of “not a bad song on the album”, and does so earnestly and convincingly. From the wobbly, video game intro of “The High Road”, to the spaghetti-western-flavoured “Mongrel Heart”, it weaves Mercer’s vocals with Burton’s production in a flurry of electronic-laced pop as enjoyable as anything we’ve heard in the last few years.
One of the album’s best qualities is mood, and this is in no small part due to Burton. Other records he’s written and/or mixed have had an engulfing tone to it, such as the retro-grade atmosphere of The Grey Album, or the melancholy fog surrounding Dark Night of the Soul. In the case of Broken Bells, it’s an aloof fantasia, music that in many cases sound like they came right out of Damon Albarn’s playbook. (The falsetto and rumble of percussion in “The Ghost Inside” and “Sailing To Nowhere” are especially Gorillaz-like.)
To Mercer’s credit, his contributions blend perfectly, it’s almost easy to forget about who’s behind the music; Broken Bells shares a few chord progressions with The Shins, but for the most part, this is a brand new beast, despite his easily-recognizable indie-murmur.
Ultimately it’s a blast to listen to, and there’s not a drop of talent wasted between the two musical champions. In fact, it almost feels like cheating, like taking your favourite musicians and creating some pretend-demigod band on your Playstation. In the end that’s probably what separates this collection of songs from your standard band or singer/songwriter fare, the sense that this wasn’t entirely organic. The test tube album. It won’t take away from the fun, just maybe a little of the historical importance.