Broken Bells - Broken Bells

Tim Miller 18/03/2010

Rating: 4/5

Little was known about the shadowy, reluctant project between Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton and The Shins' lynchpin James Mercer until very late last year, when the first peals of Broken Bells resounded across the internet. If not quite a super group, being just the two of them, the two-year partnership is certainly worth getting excited about. Mercer has proven himself to be one of the most gifted writers of melodies of the last ten years through his main band, while Burton doesn't seem to have a Midas touch so much as a Midas grip: irrevocably making a name for himself with the extraordinary Grey Album six years ago, topping charts with Gnarls Barkley, and producing Grammy-nominated albums with artists ranging from Gorillaz and Beck to The Black Keys.

With their separate reputations preceding them, then, the intense anticipation for the duo's debut was hardly surprising. But initially, it's an intriguing and not altogether obvious sum of their parts. There's very little in the way of Burton's slick sampling or irresistible beat work, and Mercer's melodies take some time to worm their way in to your head.

But slowly, surely, snippets and whispers begin to come back to you. Not least with first single 'The High Road', whose verses swoon and burn with Mercer's plaintive intonation, Burton adding in adept layers of guitar and lolling electro sounds. On the album it's the most immediate effort going, but on repeated listens other gems begin to gleam.

'Vaporize' is the track closest to Mercer's day job, its earnest strumming and lo-fi rhythms flirting with memories of Oh, Inverted World; the spaced-out middle eight will haunt you days after you thought it was long forgotten. The Hammond organ coursing through the track exposes Burton's fully-fledged love affair with the Sixties, and also perches proudly atop 'Sailing to Nowhere' later on in the album, a track that shamelessly refers to the George Harrison-penned Beatles number 'Long Long Long' with its muffled break down after each verse (I've shamelessly referenced a spot-on parallel drawn by NME's Mark Beaumont there).

Such halcyon influences are Burton's wont, and are indicative of the Broken Bells manifesto on their debut. 'Your Head is on Fire' continues the theme, two parts woozy voices and shuffling drums, one part swimming warm strings and lazy dollops of keys. By the halfway mark of the duo's ten songs, only touted next single 'The Ghost Inside' has bucked the trend, where Burton's Gnarly drums and whirring synth patterns bubble under Mercer's hook-laden vocal lines.

At this point, though, the less effective couplet of 'Trap Doors' and 'Citizen' slow down proceedings, both being introspective dream-pop creations that you might expect to find at this stage of an Air album - though the latter does hint at MGMT too. But things are fully rescued by 'Mongrel Heart', whose austere electro pulse sweeps suddenly into an ambitious cloud of dramatic brass and strings - and back out again into Mercer's echoing croon.

The Broken Bells partnership closes with 'The Mall & Misery', perhaps the second most potent chorus on the album, smoothly surrounded by sumptuous strings and '80s guitar work. It's been a bit of a blur 'til this point: yes there were moments that sounded good, but what really happened? And it's then that you reach to press play again. Admittedly, after the fine opening burst of Sixties-plundering production and summery songwriting, the second half of the album doesn't quite recapture that early organic bliss, but nevertheless it continues to deliver several more outstanding pop moments.

And perhaps, after all, this was the only thing to be expected from a pair who are often more than happy in the shadows of their more glamorous but less inventive peers: an album that doesn't bludgeon you over the head, or try to outsmart your taste, but instead intrigues, enchants and finally delights with its patient grace. It was never a question of 'if' Broken Bells' self-titled debut would come good, but 'when'. Finding out for yourself is thoroughly recommended.