The Shins are a band that will change your life, or so said Natalie Portman’s character in the movie Garden State. Following the band’s 2007 release, Wincing the Night Away, lead singer James Mercer fired members of the band, dissolved his relationship with Sub Pop records and created his own label. Just like that The Shins were no longer changing lives but Mercer was changing his.
In search of a new direction Mercer turned to Brian Burton, aka, Danger Mouse - one half of the duo Gnarls Barkley. Mercer and Burton met 6 years earlier at a music festival and realized a mutual admiration society and expressed interest in working together. The opportunity presented itself and the resulting project is Broken Bells.
The 10 songs on the album represent few changes for Mercer but reveal a more subdued side to the musically gregarious Burton. In his Gnarls Barkley persona and as producer for various albums including Beck’s Modern Guilt Burton brings a frenetic energy to songs that bounce with samples and dance hall beats. Not so here. Although both men receive songwriting credit these songs sound like Mercer with a new inspiration; take away a few production elements and you can imagine this as a Mercer solo album. Burton and Mercer handle most of the instruments, bringing in other artists only for strings and horn.
Broken Bells opens with “The High Road,” a song that begins with Burton’s distinctive production but soon becomes a Mercer ballad with a new production angle. Following up with “Vaporize” we hear Mercer’s acoustic guitar and vocals before Burton kicks in with organ. “The Ghost Inside” one of the catchiest tracks, highlights Mercer’s falsetto but this is the one track that could have been a Gnarls Barkley hit. Just imagine Cee-Jay’s voice in place of Mercer’s. Occasionally Mercer’s voice dips into lower registers, at least lower than we’ve heard him use in his previous work.
Overall the album tends toward the mellow side of pop with catchy melodies matched by understated production. Burton recently collaborated with Director David Lynch on “Dark Night of the Soul” and some of Lynch’s influence pops up on the record, including atmospheric twang guitar lines, reminiscent of the soundtrack of Twin Peaks. Lynch’s pull can also be seen in the video that accompanies the video for “The High Road.”
Broken Bells is a fine pop record but hardly groundbreaking, coming across more as a Burton produced Mercer album. If Burton and Mercer chose to work together again I’d be curious to see if could create a truly collaborative effort that pushed either or both participants into uncharted territory.