After listing his musical contributions since 2003, it’s not hard to understand why the producer/musician known as Danger Mouse is like King Midas. He’s mixed Jay-Z with the Beatles on The Grey Album, paired with rapper Jemini on Ghetto Pop Life, formed Gnarls Barkley with vocalist Cee-Lo Green, and produced both the 2005 Gorillaz album, Demon Days, and Beck’s 2008 release, Modern Guilt. And now with the debut of his latest project Broken Bells you can’t deny everything this guy touches turns to melodic gold. Of course, Broken Bells is a team effort, half of it belonging to Shins guitarist and vocalist, James Mercer. The two met at Denmark’s Roskilde back in 2004 and realized they were both fans of each other’s work. It may have taken six years for their collaboration desires to come to fruition, but after hearing the results, there’s no question the wait was definitely worth it.
What makes Broken Bells so effective is that it is more than just the mashing of Mercer and Mouse’s familiar sounds. While it is not difficult to identify the previous influences of both artists, the duo also experiments and offers some new techniques. Danger Mouse, for instance, takes a break from his usual mixing and sampling, and plays live instruments for the entirety of the album. Mercer, whose unique vocal work has always been easy to recognize, treads some new ground as well by increasing the range of his notes. In fact, one could easily be fooled into believing their track “The Ghost Inside” is a new Gorillaz song when Mercer belts it out in a Damon Albarn falsetto. And if you ask me, a little experimenting is just the reboot Mercer needed after all the overexposure with the Shins. Even the best music can make your ears bleed after you’ve heard it blasted from the speakers of the millionth college girl trying to express her “indie side.”
To say this album has highlights would be like taking a fluorescent orange marker to a road worker’s vest. It’s hard for one song to stand out when the whole album shines. But personal favorites would be “The High Road,” with its psychedelic harpsichord that begins the album like the opening credits of a 1970s’ sitcom, and then adds a head-bobbing beat. Then there’s “Sailing to Nowhere,” a tune that combines a haunting organ, sci-fi sound effects and a vaudeville piano into something darkly appealing. And I can’t forget to mention “Trap Doors” and “Vaporize,” which also capitalize an outstanding organ backdrop, and “October” and “The Mall and Misery,” which revolve around Mercer’s guitar work.
Bottom line: this is a good album. I can only hope that Broken Bells was not a one time project, and that Mercer and Mouse reunite someday to once again combat the villainy of today’s musical mediocrity.
(Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., 24th Floor, New York, NY 10022)