Marquette Wire

‘Broken Bells’ strikingly complete

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Broken Bells consists of James Mercer from The Shins and Danger Mouse, one half of R&B/hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley.

In an interview with National Public Radio March 16, Brian Burton, better known by his stage name Danger Mouse, said, “I think it’s important when you’re listening to music that when you’re hearing it, you don’t really picture the people making it.”

However, it’s hard not to picture the unique image of Danger Mouse, one half of R&B/hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley, collaborating with the frontman of indie rock band The Shins, James Mercer, on their self-titled album “Broken Bells,” released March 10.

As lead singer of the collaboration (he also plays guitar and bass), Mercer’s melodic, high-pitched voice immediately conjures up images of his regular gig as lead of The Shins and the movie “Garden State,” which featured many of The Shins’ tracks. And Burton’s beats (drums, organs, pianos, synthesizers and bass) throughout “Broken Bells” feel reminiscent of his previous work — Gnarls Barkley’s hit song, “Crazy,” for one, and also his production of “The Grey Album” in 2004, which intertwines the Beatles’ “The White Album” and Jay-Z’s “The Black Album.”

And somehow, as the record develops, you begin to forget about the two distinctive, famed musicians who made it. Other visuals develop: landing on the moon, a tragic ship sailing home, a showdown in a country western movie.

Mercer’s simple cooing works with Burton’s layered beats, and although it’s not groundbreaking, it produces a spacey, toe-tapping record touched with melancholy.

It takes time for the new visuals to cancel out the musicians’ distinctive images, though. On the duo’s first track, “The High Ride,” Mercer’s languid voice, sounding like David Gray, immediately reminds you of who you’re listening to – even over Burton’s poppy, Game Boy-like sounds.

During the album’s fourth track, “Ghost Inside,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” comes to mind, with fast-paced drums, beats and handclaps.

And by the fifth song, “Sailing to Nowhere,” you forget the distinctions and are carried off into imagery, as Mercer’s voice folds into the music.

Mercer said in the NPR interview that the song was inspired by a 1300s ship carrying men with “apple-sized goiters” to Europe, igniting the plague and destroying “half of the population of Europe.”

“Sailing to Nowhere” feels bubonic itself, with what sounds like a rain stick sliding back and forth coupled with Mercer’s cool, sad voice. With about one minute left, the song breaks into a simple piano like you’d hear tinkering away at an 1800s saloon, with pretty violins forming a cohesive sound. The sprightly ending smirks at the sad, long journey of the beginning of the song.

Burton, 33, and Mercer, 40, met six years ago at a Danish music festival and kept in touch. Their timing was perfect for collaboration: Mercer has recently replaced two of his longtime Shins band members, who had been with him since his first Albuquerque band, Flake Music. Mercer is still looking for a new album label for The Shins, and Broken Bells is keeping him from a complete hiatus.

All of the music in “Broken Bells” was recorded live — no sampling — in a 1950s studio Mercer describes as a “playground” and “clubhouse.”

The bombshell of the album is “The Ghost Inside,” which demands blasting and listening again and again. Burton combines layered beats and Mercer’s extremely high-pitched voice with both of them handclapping, which Burton described in the interview as “very ’80s.”

The last few songs of the album lack some of the energy of the first, with droopy beats lasting too long (“Mongrel Heart” feels like you’re perpetually descending a scary staircase). The lyrics are dark, too. On “The Ghost Inside,” Mercer sings, “Just like a whiskey bottle drained on the floor / She’s got no future / Just a life to endure.” Broken Bells doesn’t exactly ooze happiness.

But it’s not supposed to. Burton said they came up with the title because bells “are bright and nice and shiny, and that’s how the album is, but it’s also fractured and darkened and not quite right in certain places.”

And just like broken bells, the album is infused with off-putting combinations — just as off-putting as the musicians who combined to make it.

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