Indie Rock + Gnarls Barkley = Crazy Delicious

By Mickey Davis

There’s an old maxim in the world of independent rock that side projects by individuals from already-established bands either eclipse the original group or fail so miserably that the only thing keeping them out of the trash can is the original band’s popularity. For the former, Wilco is a great example: after the niche band Uncle Tulepo went on hiatus, Wilco formed, then blew Uncle Tulepo out of the water in terms of popularity. (The other guys of Uncle Tulepo tried to do the same thing, but failed. Ever heard of Son Volt? Me neither.) For an example of bands that failed, look no further than Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla’s self-named solo project. If you have ever wondered if there was a male equivalent to Joanna Newsom’s spaceship voice, you have found it. If you ever wondered if that voice would be good, it isn’t.

With this pattern in mind, we turn to the band Broken Bells. Broken Bells is a duo comprised of the Shins’ frontman James Mercer and Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse), who previously released solo material as Dangerdoom, comprised the instrumental half of Gnarls Barkley, and produced records by Beck and the Gorillaz. Their self-titled debut album is comprised of ten tracks, including the already released single “The High Road.”

As unlikely as this pairing seems, Broken Bells the album erases any doubt about whether this was a good move on the part of the two musicians. “The High Road” is a great precursor to the rest of the album. Burton’s mix of synthesizer, electric keyboards, and electronic drum loops is coupled with some freak-indie-folk vibes from Mercer, whose sound is so distinct that anyone who has ever listened to a Shins record (or seen the movie Garden State) will instantly recognize it. Mercer also adds a large amount of “my reverb knob goes to 11” acoustic guitar strumming which, juxtaposed to Burton’s crisp beats and piercing electronics, creates an East meets West, Joni meets Cha-Chi, Spy meets Spy combination that is surprisingly successful.
While “The High Road” is a made-for-The Current hit single, the album strikes gold with the second track, “Vaporize.” The first 15 seconds sound similar to almost any Shins song, but the mood changes when Danger Mouse does what Danger Mouse does best and throws in old-school beats, a walking bass line, and a sweet, Santana-esque organ. “The Ghost Inside” is also a good, dancey track-Mercer uses his best Prince falsetto impersonation to sing about what sounds like a love interest (knowing Mercer, however, it is probably something much more depressing).
The record is infectious. While one can never really make out the words coming out of Mercer’s mouth, the melodies stick in your head like peanut butter on Mister Ed’s hard palate. While Shins purists (and Portland residents) would burn my house (dorm) down if I said this record eclipsed any of the Shins’ work, it is by no means a bad album. Maybe Zach Braff will star in another cliché romdramcom featuring Broken Bells’ music, and they will blow up like the Shins. But probably not. Until then, enjoy the debut Broken Bells, which hits shelves March 9 of this year.