By Eleni P. Austin
Rock & Roll “Supergroups” originated back in the late ‘60s. At that point, the genre was no longer considered a teenage “fad.” Slightly drunk with their own self-importance, Rock musicians began creating their own all-star teams.
Probably the best known progenitors of the Supergroup were Cream in the U.K. and Crosby, Stills & Nash in the U.S. The former featured British guitar god Eric Clapton (Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers), along with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker (both from The Graham Bond Organisation).
The latter sounded like a law firm, but consisted of Folk-Rock phenoms David Crosby (Byrds), Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield), and Graham Nash (Hollies). Cream practically invented the Blues-Rock Power Trio and Crosby, Stills & Nash played their first live gig in front of an estimated audience of 400,000 at Woodstock.
Since then, Supergroups have come and gone, from the sublime, (Traveling Wilburys, Temple Of The Dog, Them Crooked Vultures) to the ridiculous (Mr. Big, Damn Yankees, Chickenfoot). Some Supergroups, like Velvet Revolver or SuperHeavy, seem good on paper, but the resulting music is tedious and uninspired.
Broken Bells is a Supergroup of sorts. Of course, they’re just a duo, (but you can’t really say Super-Duo, that implies they might fight crime in an ambiguously gay manner!) But that duo is made up of James Mercer and Brian Burton.
James Mercer is the leader of literate indie-poppers, The Shins. In the early 2000s, the Albuquerque quartet were the go-to band for intricate, autumnal heartache. In Zach Braff’s vapid movie, “Garden State,” a character actually insists that the Shins’ song, “New Slang” will “change your life.”
Brian Burton, better known as “Danger Mouse,” first came to prominence in 2004 when he created a mash-up of Jay Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Appropriately entitled Grey Album, it was leaked to the internet.
Copyright infringement prevented the album from receiving a proper release, but Danger Mouse was the talk of the music industry. He immediately began working as a producer, teaming up with artists as disparate as Gorillaz, Norah Jones and the Black Keys.
By 2006 he had hooked up with Neo-Soul savant, Cee-Lo Green. Together they created Gnarls Barkley. Buoyed by catchy-creepy single, “Crazy,” their debut, The Odd Couple shot to the top of the charts.
James Mercer and Danger Mouse began collaborating in 2008. 18 months later, as Broken Bells, they released their self-titled debut. Mercer eschewed the boyish falsetto that characterized his Shins work. Danger Mouse suffused the arrangements and instrumentation with warm synths, plangent strings and angular guitars. Peaking at #7 on the Billboard charts, the album received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music album.
Following a brief tour, James Mercer returned to the Shins and Danger Mouse joined forces with Italian composer Daniele Luppi, Norah Jones and Jack White to record Rome. But they still found time to get together to write and record Broken Bells’ sophomore effort, After The Disco.
The first three songs on the record, “Perfect World,” “After The Disco” and “Holding On To Life” act as a suite of sorts. “Perfect World” opens the album with bloopy, pulsating synths that ebb and flow. Mercer is down, but not out… “I’ve got nothing left, it’s kind of wonderful/’Cause there’s nothing they can take away.” The prickly guitar solo that ping-pongs through the melody wouldn’t be out of place on a Flock Of Seagulls song.
Appropriately, “After The Disco” is anchored by a four-on-the-floor Disco beat. Bubbling synths buoy Mercer’s dour lyrics that detail heartbreak on the dance floor… “The chill of the night has got you dancing away, and I’m not the dreamer of the dream you’re out there looking for.”
“Holding On For Life” is accented by a robotic rhythm, ooky theremin runs and acoustic underpinnings. Mercer affects his best Brothers Gibb falsetto as he helps a lost soul navigate the rocky shoals of romance…”You’re trying not to look so young and miserable/You gotta get your kicks where you can.”
Broken Bells’ sound is steeped in the music of the ‘80s. On their eponymous debut, the Cure seemed like a touchstone. Here, they have expanded their sonic horizons.
The hypnotic roundelay of “Leave It Alone” shares musical DNA with Michael Jackson’s late ‘80s hit, “Leave Me Alone.” The squiggly “Changing Lights” echoes Duran Duran, Nintendo music and the “Axel F.” theme from “Beverly Hills Cop.” Finally, the electro-shock groove of “No Matter What You’re Told” matches a herky-jerky cha-cha cadence to a decidedly Depeche Mode-ified melody.
The best tracks here are “Control” and “Medicine.” The former blends a ricochet rhythm, slithery bass lines and ascending horn riffs. The lyrics insist we cannot control our destiny… “Nothing’s permanent in life, so it’s useless to hold on so tight.”
The latter is propelled by insistent hand-claps and rubbery guitar fills. Mercer offers up a withering assessment of a self-pitying ex…”You think hurting gives you license to do anything at all, but you gotta take your medicine.”
Other interesting tracks include the slippery “Lazy Wonderland,” and the melancholy “The Angel And The Fool,” which mixes icy synths with an desolate Spaghetti Western whistle.
The album closes with “The Remains Of Rock & Roll” A grandiose string section cocoons a see-saw melody. Mercer unspools a whimsical vision of end times… “I’m off to the promised land if anyone needs a ride, It’s a small car, we’ll fit inside if we leave our bags behind/ We’ll entertain ourselves just watching the world go by.”
After The Disco isn’t as immediately accessible as Broken Bells’ debut was. Dense and layered, it requires repeated plays before the listener is fully engaged. With this second album, Mr. Mercer and Mr. Mouse move beyond the confines of a quirky side-project. An upcoming tour (including Coachella) means that Broken Bells are here to stay.