Broken Bells' pop partnership

If the Dead Weather, Atoms for Peace, and Them Crooked Vultures have taught us anything, it's that the supergroup is back. While it's easy to forget amid the feedback loop of hype and cynicism that accompanies each marquee-name–studded lineup, there's a reason well-known musicians turn to collaborating with their peers: to reignite their creative drive. That's certainly the case with Broken Bells, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and singer-guitarist James Mercer of the Shins. Mercer was unsure if he wanted to make a solo record, but he needed time away from the band. As for Burton, who is half of the project Gnarls Barkley and a high-profile producer, he wanted to work on something of his own rather than produce other people's records.

Burton technically still produced Broken Bells' self-titled debut, which came out in March on Columbia. But he's not just the producer: He co-wrote the songs with Mercer and played bass, drums, and all manner of keyboards. And Broken Bells is a band, not a one-off team-up. Mercer and Burton are touring as a four- to seven-piece act, with Mercer as frontman while Burton drums. They've been emphatic that this is something permanent, with more albums to come. While that doesn't spell the end of the Shins, whose 2007 outing, Wincing the Night Away, debuted at number two on the Billboard chart, it does delay any work on that band's fourth album until later this year at the earliest.

Broken Bells are off to a remarkable start. The 10 songs on the album swirl Mercer's fragmented lyrics and ghostly tenor with Burton's snappy, genre-blind flourishes. String arrangements from composer Daniele Luppi are a comparatively subtle presence, and each song defies expectations in nifty little ways. "The Ghost Inside" slides along to a hip-hop beat and creamy falsetto, while "The Mall and the Misery" cycles through gnashing guitar to finish with distant organ and seagulls. Most interestingly, "Mongrel Heart" pipes in with an Ennio Morricone–style choir and trumpet at the bridge.

Broken Bells' James Mercer and Danger Mouse.
Josh Cheuse
Broken Bells' James Mercer and Danger Mouse.

Still, there's much to recognize: Burton's milky production sound recalls his work on Beck's Modern Guilt, and Mercer maintains his peculiar diction and knack for earworm refrains. And, like Wincing the Night Away, Broken Bells is dreamy and melancholy, introducing programmed beats without dampening the live instrumentation. The bubbling R&B keyboards of lead single "The High Road" could be an extension of the Wincing track "Sea Legs," and "Vaporize" is Shinslike in its acoustic-guitar opening. Shins fans will also love evocative lyrics like "cut down in a seedy stairway."

The album was recorded in Burton's L.A. studio. The pair first met at Denmark's Roskilde Festival in 2004, later collaborating on a song for the Dark Night of the Soul album Burton made with Sparklehorse and David Lynch. Once Broken Bells was done, they had the luxury of shopping it around. Having settled on Columbia, the newly minted band benefited from a viral marketing campaign alongside the usual major-label push.

Touring behind the album, Mercer and Burton have enlisted members of Hella and Conor Oberst's Mystic Valley Band. The group reproduces the recording quite faithfully, and has even done a surprise cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." The latter is something the Shins could have done, but never did. That's the appeal of Broken Bells for Mercer and Burton: a new toy to play with, a reset button, and perhaps a spalike getaway from other obligations. Of course, when a supergroup debuts with such a multidimensional, bewitching album, there's no justification required.

 
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