Broken Bells

Broken Bells

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Columbia

When you make salad dressing, the mixing is often more important than the ingredients, however tasty they may be. All the parts that make up vinaigrette are strong and useful flavors, but nobody wants oil, vinegar and water on their salad – they want vinaigrette. It’s the same for musical dream-teams; when two notable figures from very different camps join forces, the result better be daring and – at least in some way – unapologetically different than its constituent parts. It should also be a thorough blend of those various creators’ various skills. So when Shins frontman James Mercer and all-star-producer Danger Mouse (née Brian Burton) combined their talents under the moniker Broken Bells, critics and the blogosphere expressed sentiments equal parts giddy and apprehensive. Both of these artists typically bring both talent and unique personality to the table – they could have cut a record from two separate artistic perspectives that failed to mix Mercer’s indie sound and Burton’s spacey-soul into something new and different. Fortunately, a few missed opportunities aside, Broken Bells is a delightful and completely integrated mixture.

And what does that mix sound like? On Mercer’s end of things – the vocals, both solo and layered – Broken Bells might as well be a Shins album from a parallel universe. Considering his resent jettison of many of the Shins’ original members, Broken Bells might be a telling barometer of Mercer’s creative tastes. Either way, they’re some of the best vocal performances he’s recorded yet; the sky-reaching keening at the end of “Vaporize” segues right into restrained balladry, “The Ghost Inside” matches a quirky falsetto with a similarly tinny synth, layering it like the Knife and “Citizen” matches every Chutes Too Narrow vocal in the “catchy” department. What really makes his contributions to Broken Bells a success is the continuous variety he applies to his vocals and the varying ways Burton handles those parts. Each song features a slightly different delivery, with a broader range and different styles than Mercer has featured in the past, and Burton’s approach to Mercer as a bandmate is frequently deft and generally catchy.

For that reason, Burton’s production – per usual – really makes Broken Bells a pleasure to listen to, especially on headphones. Every element of the album has a surprising amount of texture, ranging from surging backdrops to crackling feedback and even barely-there recordings of fans at a show. His choice to only use live instruments was another boon, allowing these songs to avoid some of the musical constraints sampling inevitably can bring. He lays subtle tweaks on Mercer’s otherwise recognizable chops, delicately layers synths, vocals, horns and beats, works in handclaps without being schmaltzy, and manages to find the perfect place to let these tracks careen in very different directions than they began. Danger Mouse brings a different tone to Mercer’s seemingly fragile presence, much like he did for Helena Costas in Joker’s Daughter, making a Shins-like melody soulful and thick versus light and breezy. While Broken Bells’ vocal identity could have been a heavy-handed rehash of the many beloved Shins stylistic quirks Mercer laid down on that band’s first three discs, it instead finds a novel balance between Gnarls Barkley’s starry-eyed retro soul and Mercer’s knack for polished Natalie Portman soundtracking.

In other words, Broken Bells is a beautiful – and adequately mingled – collision of two different iconic sounds. It’s well executed, and unarguably pleasant. When it comes to the hit-and-miss world of super-groups, that’s as good as it gets: the highlights are as bright as you might expect and the mistakes aren’t of artistic narcissism, making them incredibly easy to ignore.

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