BROKEN BELLS – Broken Bells (2010)

Danger Mouse doesn’t ever seem to sit still; he seems to find himself working alongside artist after artist after artist without a break. In the past few years, he’s teamed up with Cee-Lo Green, MF Doom, and Sparklehorse (rest in peace, Mark), produced albums for Beck, The Rapture and Damon Albarn’s albums (Gorillaz’s Demon Days and the sole The Good, The Bad and The Queen album), and now, he’s working alongside The Shins’ James Mercer on this project, dubbed Broken Bells. I’m not sure how far back Mercer and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse’s birth name) go; Mercer did appear on last year’s weirdest collaboration, Dark Night of the Soul (Sparklehorse was the major co-conspirator for that project), but then again, so did almost everyone who’s anyone in indiedom. The real question is what kind of a collaboration will this be? Is Broken Bells merely a one-off stunt, the album a result of curious but fruitless pairing, or is the music here alive with genuine intrigue and wonder?

Well, upon first listen, the pairing’s certainly not fruitless, but it isn’t exactly jaw-dropping, either. Broken Bells feels like too calculated a release, as if some record company execs laid out a whole bunch of ground rules for not alienating anyone, and Mercer and Burton were only too happy to oblige. Broken Bells is an album of gentle pleasantries (Trap Doors) and rich vocal harmonies (October). It coasts along on slick, rigid beats, it’s overly-polished demeanor not breaking in the slightest over the course of ten songs. In other words, while it’s an enjoyable album, in a certain sense, it’s also totally unmemorable. None of the songs stand out from one another; they’ve all got a beat, but not a pulse. It’s, unfortunately, an album that doesn’t make much of an impression on you, which considering the two powerhouses behind its inception, is a colossal disappointment.

Sometimes, collaborations just work. Mono and World’s End Girlfriend got together and made Palmless Prayer, Mass Murder Refrain, which is the closest thing we’re likely to get to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album in their absence. That collaboration was one of similar artists with a sympathetic aim. On the other hand, look at what David Byrne and Brian Eno did together; sure, their music wasn’t all that dissimilar from one another, but they certainly weren’t two of a kind, as artists. And yet, together, they made two wonderful, timeless albums. Broken Bells, by that metric, is a failure, in that it feels like little more than a novelty, one that’ll soon be forgotten.

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