Broken Bells is a collaboration between Shins frontman James Mercer and producer extraordinaire Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton. The latter has already had great success as half of a super-duo, teaming with Cee-Lo to become Gnarls Barkley.
And though it contains no breakout hit on the level of Crazy, Broken Bells' debut album is an enjoyable piece of work.
However, that assessment is mostly dependent on you holding Mercer in high regard, since his voice and sensibility stand at the center of the record. In fact, it's easy to view Broken Bells as a James Mercer solo album with production by Danger Mouse. Sure, Burton cowrites every song and brings an experimental spirit with him (especially in the diverse instrumentation), but this is Mercer's show.
In fact, those hoping for something that doesn't sound mostly like The Shins will only have one song to latch onto. That'd be The Ghost Inside, which is the strange amalgam of indie rock and futuristic R & B that post probably expected from this collaboration. Over a Neptunesish keyboard line, Mercer employs a heretofore-unheard syncopated falsetto. It's all well and good, but I must admit a sense of relief when Mercer goes back to his regular singing voice in the song's final minute. I guess that means that, overall, it doesn't really work for me.
On a handful of other songs, Burton's free-wheeling production touch is evident as well. Your Head is on Fire has a decidedly dreamy '60s feel to it, especially in the freakout opening and the harmonies-and-shakers outro. Sailing To Nowhere stitches together bossa nova, opera, soul, and classical to no great effect, thus making the title especially appropriate title. For quality neither of them matches Mongrel Heart, an '80s dark synth pop tune with a detour into a spaghetti western Ennio Morricone-style breakdown.
But the rest of the album is basically straight-up enigmatic Shinish pop that falls into one of two categories: pretty good and okay. In the latter category we have Trap Doors, Citizen, and October, any of which would sound nice on the soundtrack to Zach Braff's next movie (I don't mean that sarcastically, by the way). Leading the "pretty good" category is opener and first single The High Road. The highlight is the singalong ending with a choir of Mercers: "it's too late to change your mind / you let loss be your guide." Vaporize sports some groovy organ and horn bits, and strong closer The Mall and Misery is a little bit punk and a little bit new wave.
Sometimes side projects transcend their nature and become the center of attention. Others live up to the description exactly, offering a pleasant diversion and little else. Broken Bells is one of those.
Fave Song: Mongrel Heart