Thursday, August 12, 2010

Broken Bells (2010)


James Mercer is maybe the alt-pop genius of the 2000s, and Danger Mouse has had a hand in an intimidating number of smart and influential productions; put them together and you get Broken Bells, this year's replacement for the Shins and alas, a surprisingly undistinguished project given its pedigree. You might rattle off an impressive list of genres and subgenres it takes a stab at, but in the interest of accuracy you'd have to add "lite-" in front of each.

Opener "The High Road" draws closest to what one might expect a Shins/Danger Mouse collaboration might sound like -- essentially a spacier, slightly funkier Shins. But this is no high-spirited romp; Mercer's "I don't know if the dead can talk to anyone" bleary-eyed vocals sound like a soft lament when they don't sound like a miserable cry, to be sure an interesting if maudlin angle on rhythm-driven music, although Marvin Gaye did it a little more convincingly. That's as good as the album gets.

What follows cannot be seriously derided; it's inoffensive enough and never bad, with the exception of the magnificently ill-advised Gnarls Barkleyisms of "The Ghost Inside." Seldom do the pair seem truly in sync; "Vaporize," with its fat acoustic guitar sound and engaging aural trickery, gives vent to exciting possibilities about what a high-profile producer could do with the Shins, but Mercer still sounds so bored he could scarcely be persuaded to show up at the studio. On the other hand, the singer does a rather incredible Thom Yorke impression on "Sailing to Nowhere" and is rewarded with thin, warbling production from his new partner.

That said, the driving talent of the album is clearly Danger Mouse, and his ability to mimic quaint production styles is entertaining: "Trap Doors" is a dead ringer for Tears for Fears. "Your Head Is on Fire" sounds like either bad Beatles or good George Harrison. "Citizen" calls to mind Nigel Godrich's first Beck album, Mutations. But it's a signal of how much my patience with the album wears thin when I start playing the influence-spotting game throughout the second half, where the last three songs sputter out in generic pleasantry. Electronics don't do much to liven up the sleepy proceedings. Songs with propulsive beats still seem somehow unenthusiastic, lacking in bite and passion, and when an electric guitar lick shows up on "The Mall & Misery," it's a too-late breath of fresh air.

I'm no psychoanalyst, and Mercer has long seemed like an unsettled man in interviews, which is not here our concern. But I wonder if Mercer is tired of, or at least discovering the limits of, the kind of self-expression that pop music can hold. He performs competently here, but one rarely gets the impression that he is actually living in the words and music, that there is any substantial degree of real emotion behind the songs. (And before you make any claim that this is simply his style, listen to "Gone for Good" again.) It feels like a follow-the-numbers album, assembled quickly and all too calmly.

The garish publicity photo on Best Buy endcaps the world over displays Danger Mouse looking stern and able, Mercer annoyed and disinterested. I don't know if Broken Bells and their label (exponentially larger than the Shins') expected to light the world on fire with a modicum of effort; I doubt it. If anything, this music seems designed to serve the purpose that the duo fills in the overblown recent video for "Ghost Inside," in which a girl on a spaceship runs into crisis and requires their nonchalant assistance, dutifully obliged. With their easygoing electronics and decent melodies, they keep the ship running, but that's about it.

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