There are minor key artists and major key artists. Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse is a minor key artist. His dark keyboard trickery and subtle groove consciousness informed records by Beck and Gorillaz, and produced one certifiable game changer, 2006's St. Elsewhere
, the first Gnarls Barkley album. "Crazy," that album's breakthrough single was one of the decade's best. Danger Mouse's artistry and Cee-Lo's gospel-tinged, powerhouse vocals, created a hybrid that sounded like nothing else at the time.
James Mercer, singer/songwriter for The Shins is a major key artist. After two great, literate folk-pop albums, it was their third, 2007's under-appreciated near masterpiece,Wincing the Night Away
, which brimmed with the exhilarating melodies of "Australia" and "Turn On Me" that raised the stakes for this band.
So what happens when minor key artist meets major key artist? At first, it seems like minor key wins. We're not used to hearing Mercer's keening tenor stripped of its rock accoutrements. His stiff, college-boy affect feels ill-suited to the Danger Mouse aesthetic and we miss the simple joys of great songs delivered by conventional methods. But upon repeated listenings to Broken Bells, this team-ups strengths are revealed. "Sailing To Nowhere" is a lovely Beatles-influenced waltz, with electric piano, acoustic guitar, ambient rain and a gorgeous, orchestral ending. "The Ghost Inside" is a catchy hand-clapper, with a synth line that recalls The Cars. "The High Road" features wildly improbable keyboard bleeps that somehow rub just right against Mercer's remorseful lyrics. A pattern of regret and longing begins to emerge. "What amounts to a dream anymore?" Mercer asks in "Vaporize" a song about love's disintegration. "If you want to follow me, you should know. I was lost then and I'm lost now and I doubt I'll ever know which way to go," he confesses. It's a sad, resigned admission, made by a grown-up and it's unlike anything Mercer's written before.
What at first feels like a random assemblage of song chunks, takes on its own internal logic and winds up feeling like a triumph. Is it better than anything either of these extremely talented artists have ever done? Well, no. But it's nice to discover that it doesn't have to be. Once expectations are managed, Broken Bells turns out to be one of the most rewarding listens of the year so far, with a bit more to uncover each time you hear it.-dan siegler
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MP3:"The High Road" - Broken Bells
Broken Bells on Myspace