Supergroup? Please. Superstar duo Broken Bells bring far weightier baggage from their musical day-jobs. Shins frontman James Mercer must get cold shivers anytime anyone brings up that godawful Garden State movie, and, oh, PS, he just fired all his bandmates and will self-release his next LP to maximize earning potential. Onetime producer-du-jour Danger Mouse is no longer so of-the-day; his hipster cachet tapped about the time The Grey Album found its 10,000th download, his credentials now writ along the corporate lines of massive-unit-shifting-hit-single (Gnarls Barkley’s once-omnipresent "Crazy") and, in that most onerous burden of all, multiple-Grammy-award-winner.
So, I’m sure the tag of ‘supergroup’ —if, indeed, you can call a pairing a ‘group’— will hardly seem daunting. The pejorative implication in such a term suggests contrivance, but Broken Bells don’t sound as if they’re belaboring in mismatched union on their debut album. The pair already collaborated once together on Danger Mouse’s ill-fated David Lynch/Sparklehorse knees-up Dark Night of the Soul, so, here, they’re just picking back up and making an album.
Danger Mouse has worked in plenty of unions as producer —Gnarls Barkley and Joker’s Daughter; with Jemini, Beck, Martina Topley-Bird, and Damon Albarn— but, here, his role is somehow different. For the first time, he’s billed as Brian Burton; suggesting that he sees something more personal in his Broken Bells work.
The Tintinnabulation of the Autotune
The one big change from Burton’s back-catalogue of tracks is one that hardly seems particularly personal. Where much of his work is about sounding vintage —sampling old breaks, playing old analogue synths, approximating decaying analogue tone— here there’s less retro, more retrofuturism; the album anchored by programmed drums, not drumbreaks; gleaming synthesizers, not analogue organs.
"October" is a work of veritable chrome: insistent bass, sinuous synths, and punched-out programming gliding along all bright and shiny, with Mercer’s hoarse, indie-rockin’ voice even buffed up by some not-particularly-subtle digital effects. Mercer’s voice is even less recognizable on "The Ghost Inside," in which every utterance seems pitch-adjusted, from a polyester falsetto on opening, to the rippling, pixellated washes of verses, to a chorus in which four-part Mercer harmonies' all hit at different pitch.
Which makes it curious, then, that this is where Burton has chosen to peek out from under his moniker. It’s, in many ways, his most elusive work; one that feels melancholy and intimate, but also cold and distant; the warmth of dug-up vinyl and old samples largely overlooked for over-processed productions.
This isn’t to say Burton buries Mercer in both mix and aesthetic; "Sailing to Nowhere" and "The High Road" sound a lot like evolutionary Shins songs, and the gorgeous closing number "The Mall and the Misery" pulls out dustbowl slide-guitar and sunswept faux-Morricone strings, sets them in contrast to Pacman blips and rock riffing, and allows Mercer plenty of room to shine bright.
But, there’s rarely a feeling unexpected spontaneity to proceedings; this ad-hoc side-project finding no tension, confusion, or notable creative collisions. As far as supergroups go, Broken Bells come exactly as advertised: their debut sounding a lot like The Shins + Danger Mouse. Even if, this time, he’s Brian Burton.
Record Label: Columbia
Release Date: March 9, 2010