It's hip to be a pair. Just look at the musical duos studding today’s indie scene; with Zooey Deschanel and M.Ward forming She & Him, Beck writing and producing Charlotte Gainsbourg's latest album, and Brooklyn’s MGMT nabbing a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, it’s clear that two songwriting heads can often be better than one. Or three or four.
So it's no surprise that James Mercer of the Shins and acclaimed hip-hop leaning producer Danger Mouse, after meeting six years ago at a music festival, have ditched their respective company to form Broken Bells. Danger Mouse, nee Brian Burton, has produced for other alternative acts like Beck, Gorillaz, and the Black Keys, and he famously blended samples from the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album to make The Grey Album in 2004. A multi-instrumentalist, he most notably teamed up with Cee-Lo Green in the middle of the decade to form the wildly successful hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley. Mercer, a Kevin Spacey lookalike in possession of an aching falsetto and indie songwriting earnestness, has decided to strike out on his own, with the Shins currently caught in record label purgatory—they left Sub Pop for Mercer's own label, Aural Apothecary, in 2008, but a follow-up to Wincing the Night Away has yet to materialize.
So what do an indie rock lead singer and half of Gnarls Barkley have to sing about? If you’re expecting something groundbreaking in artistry here, you might be disappointed. On the duo’s self-titled debut LP, most of the songs sound like, well, Shins songs snaked into Danger Mouse trip hop beats. However, that’s not always a cocktail for disappointment. First single "The High Road," released back in December, is a stunning electro-elixir that swoops between woodwinds and rhythm while Mercer waxes existential. "October" blends Beatles-type harmonies into a driving mélange, and Mercer wraps his falsetto around tinkling verses on the infectious "The Ghost Inside.”
Sometimes the two artists’ sounds combine beautifully, as with pipe organ and hand-claps on the grinding "Vaporize." “The Mall & Misery,” despite its emo anthem-sounding title, is pepped up by crunching guitars and keyboards. Mercer has a fondness for writing opaque lyrics, but they’re often buoyed by Mouse-y driving drums. Balance does both men well.
Burton’s staccato beats keep each song’s pace lively and fresh. His influences are sometimes orchestral, like on "Sailing to Nowhere" which explodes into tinkling piano riffs and Queen-like symphonic bridges. But Bells still seems like Mercer’s show, creatively speaking; perhaps Burton still has room to grow as an artist rather than just a producer.
The sum is an album of melodic hi-fi indie in the vein of Beta Band and Elbow that’s not exactly boring, but not quite memorable either. "Citizen" verges on twee with its xylophone taps, and “Trap Doors” sounds like a languishing Shins B-side (“You’re preaching to the choir/so turn around.”)
What does make Broken Bells sound fresh as an electronica outfit is their reliance on real instruments. They've already played a handful of live shows with a six-person band, with Burton on drums and joined by members of Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley band, rather than one guy in the back hunched over a MacBook and a subwoofer.
Broken Bells is interesting enough, but as far as Danger Mouse pair-ups go, I might still prefer Gnarls Barkley. Does that make me crazy?
Jessica Misener can be found online at http://www.jessicamisener.com.