Broken Bells, Troubadour, March 14, 2010
PHOTO by Sung. More here.
NOTE: In the following Brian Burton, of whom it has become standard to point out is also known as Danger Mouse, will be referred to simply as DM. James Mercer will be JM, not “James Mercer of the Shins,” as has also become his standard billing. The live band is filled out with five others on lend from fine other rock outfits Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band and Hella, who, for the sake of brevity and writer’s sanity, will be collectively referred to herein as TOGWANDMNJM or, The Other Guys Who Are Neither Danger Mouse Nor James Mercer. (Sorry, TOGWANDMNJM.) Broken Bells will be BB.
First off, the Troubadour is packed. I mean like packt like sardines in a crushd tin box packed. This is BB’s second show in LA (“Where we wrote this shit…”–JM) inside a month, following a quick preview jaunt to NYC, London and Paris, thus 5th ever show by my shaky math. Be it comped industry folks or plain ol’ regular fans that snapped up tix that sold out in minutes, it’s obvious the interest in BB is running high. This time around though, the show comes after the record has been physically released to Best Buys and Starbucks, which may or may not mean anything in this day and age of leaks and online streaming previews. Maybe slightly more familiarity with the tunes.
They take stage in near total darkness, save a constant projection of spinning geometrical shapes and patterns. There’s a fine line between affectation and artistic license but these guys seem fairly egoless, so I’m willing to grant them this right to play in the dark. (Looking forward to hearing if they stick to this m.o. before 2,000 badgeholders @ Stubb’s @ SXSW.)
DM’s ‘fro and tall slight hunch is fast becoming an iconic silhouette in the culture, as he takes to his throne behind the kit. There is a noticeable surge in audience whoop when JM’s saunters on stage last, just a beat behind TOGWANDMNJM. Not entirely unsurprising given the intense love for Shins in many quarters. Slight of build and sporting a bit of light beard, JM seems more at ease on stage than I seem to remember him with Shins. He warms up as the set unwinds, seeming even a bit chatty towards the end. TOGWANDMNJM fill out on bass, guitar, keyboards, samplers, and misc percussion.
It’s a safe assumption right out of the gate that any product resulting from a collaboration of the quality of rock pedigree DM and JM bring is just incapable of being bad. They’re just too skilled, technically, have too much good taste, so it’s just up to them to decide what they want to do and try to do it, on record and live. So do BB pull it off live? Well, yes.
With an able rock guitar-bass-drums foundation (DM on drums mostly, grabbing a guitar for one tune, sitting down at the Rhodes for another) holding things down for touches of samples, percussion, synths and piano to float on top, they render the album faithfully, just about track for track, in near exact order. In the tunes themselves, there’s some 60’s, maybe some Beach Boys, a touch of Beck, a hint of 80‘s, a bit of Shins (duh). A friend mentioned Sneaker Pimps as a point of reference; I’m still trying to figure out if that’s a compliment. With only 10 originals in their bag, they’re using the encore for covers, paying tribute to influences and so far demonstrating impeccable taste. Past shows have seen Neutral Milk Hotel and Tommy James covers; tonight, we get DM and JM electric piano/guitar duo for Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” JM’s high voice beautifully carrying the tune, followed by a full-band take on My Bloody Valentine’s “When You Sleep.”
On record you can hear the effort to let in a little analog, organic wonkiness here and there—a detuned synth, a crusty drum sample, a bit of hiss here and there—but mostly the CD is a polished production. (The records of the dearly missed Mark Linkous a.k.a. Sparklehorse, with whom DM collaborated on the Dark Night of the Soul project, no doubt influencing him to some degree, mastered this sort of mix, imbuing rock tunes with electronic and organic whimsical flourishes, and vice versa.)
The live show can open the recorded versions a bit, let in a bit more energy and happy slack and they do, somewhat, but with room for more. (Reminding myself it’s their 5th ever show.) You see DM reaching over to turn up the bass and tweak a sample here and there to to amp things up. There’s a hint of fire in the band for the MBV cover. Maybe it’s still too early in the life of BB for them to let their baby free and see where the band can take things, but DM and JM can afford to cut loose with this solid a backing band and the sturdy tunes. One suspects as they play more, we’ll see them stretch things out a bit. Then again, it might not be in either of their personalities, which is fine. Maybe let TOGWANDMNJM push while DM and JM serve as the tent pegs holding things together.
With a hot CD out and a solid live show on the way to the SXSW and Coachella, pieces are in place for things to happen for BB now. But I’m looking forward to seeing if this debut album is the start of a long collaboration that grows the project into a proper band. Then when DM and JM return to their other projects, maybe they’ll be known as Brian Burton and James Mercer of Broken Bells.