Thursday, March 11, 2010

You let loss be your guide: Broken Bells, 2010.03.10

Last night I had the privilege of seeing the fourth-ever show by Broken Bells, the highly-anticipated, internet-hyped collaboration between James Mercer of The Shins and production powerhouse Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse. Only one day removed from the release of their self-titled debut album, the somewhat unlikely pair, who had worked together on last year's superlative Dark Night of the Soul project, played to a packed house of eager yet coolly restrained concertgoers in Brooklyn's hipster haven, Music Hall of Williamsburg.

After a brief set by Montreal-based Plants and Animals, who played a pleasant and fun if not particularly memorable set, the headlining act began to take the stage. The cure duo of stars was augmented for live performance by five sidemen, playing various combinations of lead guitar, keyboards/synths, percussion, and bass, along with backing vocals. Mercer himself stuck to guitar and lead vocals the entire evening; Burton, on the other hand, showed his versatility while jumping back and forth between live drums, guitar, and organ.

The performance from the band was almost meek, especially considering the amount of hype; the band played capably and certainly proved their chops, but displayed a lack of adventurousness by simply playing through the entire album, note-for-note, in order for the main set of the show. The band eschewed lighting effect, opting instead to play the entire show with a series of psychedelic animations projected onto them from the mixing desk, presenting a visual effect that reminded me of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground's Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The visuals certainly matched the music, which continues Burton's recent fascination with '60s psychedelia evident in his work on the second Gnarls Barkley album and his production on Beck's
Modern Guilt. Still, though, I couldn't escape the feeling through the show that the band, and Mercer in particular, were using the projections as just a way to draw attention away from the people actually playing the music.

After the main set was finished, the lack of inspiration seemed to carry over to the audience, which applauded half-heartedly for the obligatory encore. Fortunately, having already run through their entire original repertoire, things loosened up and felt much more spontaneous and alive for the encore. First, Mercer and Burton played a short but sweet cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down," then the rest of the band came out for a rocking "Crimson and Clover." The crowd ate this up, and finally seemed to believe in the band. Unfortunately, the show was over at this point. "All right, let's get a drink!" Mercer exclaimed before he exited the stage, almost as if he was aware of just how underwhelming the show had been.

Mercer has a natural ear for melody, and the embellishments by Burton do make for a nice listen on record. However, anyone who has seen the Shins live knows that Mercer seems less than comfortable in the spotlight. One would have hoped that his forming a project with one of the hottest producers of the moment, a project that was sure to generate hype and anticipation, would signal a higher degree of comfort, but sadly this does not seem to be the case. Broken Bells certainly can deliver, as long as you don't expect anything more than you already have on the record. Truly, they have nothing up their sleeves.


The High Road
Your Head Is on Fire
The Ghost Inside
Sailing to Nowhere
Trap Doors
Mongrel Heart
The Mall & Misery
Don't Let It Bring You Down
Crimson and Clover

For a limited time, I am offering a download of my recording of the Broken Bells' set from the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Considering the album is distributed by a major label, and the band plays through the entire album, I was hesitant to do so; however, in keeping with the spirit of Danger Mouse's Grey Album and Dark Night of the Soul, I have changed my mind. I do encourage anybody who downloads and enjoys this recording to please purchase the album itself, the Amazon page for which is helpfully linked above. Files will be removed upon request. Please also note that this link will only be active for 7 days or 100 downloads, and I will not re-upload the link once it has expired. That said, enjoy!