Danger Mouse is a special character. Not many a man can collaborate effectively with everyone from MF DOOM to Beck. Yet he has, and Broken Bells is just the latest in this stunning series of partnerships. James Mercer of The Shins fame is at the forefront here, contributing vocals and guitars, but Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) warps this album into something more compelling than the subdued folkery that has rocketed Mercer to the throne of the American indie kingdom. Gone is the lonely strum of “New Slang” and resting in its place is the apocalyptic wail of “The Mall and Misery.” While not entirely dissimilar from his work on Beck’s latest album, this closing track is perhaps where Burton’s production is at its absolute best. The electronic loops and strings that lie under Mercer’s palm muted guitar and terse vocals allow the song to tense up, take off, and soar where a Shins song might patiently meander along.
Although he doesn’t make the album, Mercer is outstanding throughout. His lyrics aren’t particularly outstanding, but he delivers the lines convincingly enough that it doesn’t really matter what he’s saying. On the opener and lead single, “The High Road,” his tossed off vocal is slightly reminiscent of something Brendan Benson might have laid down on the better Raconteurs tracks. Burton, further exhibiting his mastery of modern production, takes Mercer out of his comfort zone on a few tracks and to good effect. “The Ghost Inside” bounces along and finds Mercer exploring the upper ranges of his falsetto (which makes him sound a lot like Evil Urges-era Jim James), and it works better in this context than it ever might have for My Morning Jacket. They revisit this bouncy tempo later on the album, albeit in a more traditional indie rock fashion, on the spastic guitar exercise October.” Continuing the theme of “music you never thought you’d hear the guy from The Shins sing over,” the bassline and keyboard fuzz on “Mongrel Heart” are more akin to something from Burton’s work with Gorillaz. Though as soon as Mercer comes in with those wordless harmonies, it’s clear that this isn’t just a synthesis of all of Danger Mouse’s indie rock-related projects, but something wholly original and uniquely entertaining.
Also like Modern Guilt, there are a few tracks that, when taken out of context, fall short of these obvious standouts. “Your Head Is On Fire” doesn’t deviate too much from Mercer’s established Shins formula. Its melody is certainly pretty enough, but Wincing the Night Away – and frankly the majority of Mercer’s recorded material – has treaded this territory before. The aforementioned “…Ghost Inside” represents the only real stylistic clash on the whole album. Mercer seems a bit uncomfortable atop Burton’s obligatory dancey beat, but you barely have time to notice before the song fizzes to an end amongst the burbling keyboards and segues into the subdued Radiohead nod of “Sailing to Nowhere.”
Even though the “supergroup” moniker hasn’t been tossed around in regards to Broken Bells, it’s a project that seems more deserving of such a title than many recent bands who have received it. I’m looking at you, Tinted Windows.