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TBTS Reviews: Broken Bells

March 24, 2010

Brian Burton, known to most as Danger Mouse, has made a career out of sonic exploration and reinvention.  Starting out as an underground hip-hop producer, he rose to prominence as one half of Gnarls Barkley.  He spent time between the first and second Barkley albums producing Gorillaz, Beck and later the Black Keys.  In 2009, he announced a collaboration with Shins’ lead singer James Mercer under the moniker Broken Bells. 

I have to admit, I don’t have a tremendous history with the Shins.  I own all three of their studio albums but haven’t yet listened to any of them.  I have listened to Mercer’s original band, Flake Music’s only album, 1997’s When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return, and that album is in no way a preparation for Broken Bells.   Mercer’s vocals on the new album are wonderfully varied and expressive, as if his voice is simply another instrument to be used to great effect.

Opener “The High Road” is a mid-tempo sing-a-long pop track that lets you know that Mercer’s pop sensibilities aren’t taking a backseat to Burton’s production.  In fact, throughout the album Burton seems content to take what seems like a more subdued role, arranging instruments and adding flourishes as opposed to hitting you over the head with vintage samples and hip-hop beats.  There are actually no samples on the record at all, and almost everything sounds as if it were played live.

The album really takes off on track 4, “The Ghost Inside.”  The song itself is a nice enough ditty and would be catchy on it’s own, but the keyboard effects Burton employs during the chorus take the song to a new level.  The best word I can use to describe this song is “scrumptious.”  “Ghost” is followed by another gem, “Sailing to Nowhere”, where Mercer’s vocal is taken to new heights by Burton’s organ work.  “Nowhere” deconstructs the concept of a bridge in a pop song by joining the guitar and organ oriented first part of the song to a sweet orchestral ending. 

In many ways this album is the culmination of Burton’s previous production work; where he perfects the art of mastering a song with interesting sounds without overwhelming it.  “Mongrel Heart” is another good example of how Burton’s studio wizardry takes an otherwise fine song to new heights.  Using different keyboards, organ and even a trumpet, the extra sounds add a richness and depth to Mercer’s vocal.

All in all, Broken Bells is a low-key triumph.  It won’t knock you out of your seat, in fact it’s somewhat deceptive on first listen.  The multi-layered sound requires a bit of deciphering and active participation on the part of the listener.  But if you like a little slow burn in your pop music, this will be a satisfying album.  Both Burton and Mercer have expressed interest in keeping the band going instead of hopping to other projects, so I expect thier sound will continue to grow and mature.  But as a debut, Broken Bells is a strong start.  You can listen to tracks from Broken Bells at and you can also hear them live at SXSW at NPR Music.

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