When James Mercer, singer/guitarist for the Shins, and producer Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) announced in the fall of 2009 that they would be releasing an album together as Broken Bells, it instantly became one of the most anticipated alternative albums of 2010. Instead of becoming just another Danger Mouse collaboration saturated with samples, every instrument was played and recorded in the studio.
Mercer went through some evolution for this record as well. Although his work on the Shins' records often required high register vocals, his voice breaks into the falsetto range on Broken Bells as well as dropping into the lower depths of his capability.
Where many collaboration albums often fall into a competition for influence, Mercer and Burton embrace each other's strengths which results in an extremely well balanced blend of the two artists' styles. The first track, "The High Road," opens sounding very much like another Gorillaz track. This should come as no surprise since Danger Mouse produced their second record, but after twenty five seconds of waiting for Damon Albarn's trademark vocals, the music transitions into a track much more comparable to the Shins' previous releases.
On the following track, "Vaporize," Mercer is given the introduction before Burton's influence fades into the mix.
Easily the catchiest song on the album, "The Ghost Inside" is Danger Mouse's only true feature song. With a beat resembling that of "Kids With Guns" on the Gorillaz album Demon Days, and falsetto vocals reminiscent of Burton's other major project, Gnarls Barkley, "The Ghost Inside" is as close as Broken Bells gets to a club worthy hit. Even though Mercer's vocals are not as distinctive on this track as they are on the rest of the album, his presence is still felt and the final verse loses the falsetto, giving Mercer's voice a chance to shine.
Time will tell if Mercer and Burton join forces for a follow up to this incredible debut, but their chemistry is undeniable. Broken Bells is a short record, ringing in at less than forty minutes, but there isn't a single track that hasn't been carefully crafted by the two artists. Mercer's distinct voice over a live Danger Mouse instrumentation is enough to engage anyone who has enjoyed past work by either artist and if it does turn out to be the duo's only release, it will not be forgotten.