Last fall, Paste Magazine named Danger Mouse the “Producer of the Decade,” and with a resume that includes Gnarls Barkley, The Grey Album, Gorillaz, and Danger Doom, I’m inclined to agree. From that resume, it’s clear that he has a penchant for collaboration, and Broken Bells, his new group with James Mercer, front man of indie rockers The Shins, might be his most ambitious one yet. Mr. Mouse, or Brian Burton as he is billed here, started out in hip-hop, but his choice of projects has always been diverse, and in 2008 he moved into rock, producing Beck’s Modern Guilt and The Black Keys’ Attack and Release. Reaction to those albums was mixed, (both underrated in my opinion) and some critics claimed that while his early work succeeded in shattering conceptions of genre, he was starting to settle into an increasingly formulaic style. This complaint has also surfaced in regard to Broken Bells, his first full scale collaboration with a rock artist, but where some see a lack of artistic growth, I see a prolific artist with remarkable consistency.
Broken Bells is not a groundbreaking record, nothing is reinvented here, it’s just good music. I know it’s a novel concept, but not everything has to be important, sometimes being enjoyable to listen to is enough, and this one is a real mood lifter. I wasn’t even planning on purchasing it until I saw it in new releases for $7, but I ended up playing it through 4 times when I got home. It’s not exactly a sunny pop album, although there is some of that, but Burton uplifts with his trademark style of vaguely psychedelic, yet danceable instrumentals, and James Mercer’s lyrics abound with inspirational messages on anthems like “October” and lead single “The High Road.”
I’ve never logged any serious time listening to The Shins (or watching Garden State for that matter) but I would guess Mercer is operating further out of his comfort zone than Burton, and he rises to the occasion showcasing a chameleon-like range that goes from a hushed lullaby on “Citizen,” to a vampy falsetto on “The Ghost Inside,” which would easily fit on an Gnarls Barkley record, both sonically and thematically. Mercer’s guitar work can get lost in Burton’s layered production at times, but some of the tracks where it’s most prevalent, “Vaporize” and album closer “The Mall and Misery,” are real highlights and the best examples of how the different styles of these two musicians can organically mesh. Other highlights include “Trap Doors,” one of the more laid-back jams, and “Mongrel Heart,” the saddest James Bond theme song you’ve ever heard. It’s such a consistent record overall that I don’t dislike any of the songs (an increasing trend in Danger Mouse projects), plus they all come in between 3 and 4 ½ minutes, so it’s not an overly indulgent record either.
I know people tend to gravitate towards dreary music on rainy days, which the Northeast has been getting quite a few of recently, but I’d suggest you check out Broken Bells; it’s happy enough to lift your spirits, but still moody enough to be authentic.
(Update: Their currently playing this album in the Starbucks that doubles as my office. What could be more authentic than that??!?!)