The term 'super-group' has become wholly meaningless. Thanks to the endless creative cross-pollination of musicians on the contemporary rock scene, be they mainstream stars or indie cult figures, a once lofty title enjoyed by the likes of Cream has degenerated into a banal and over-abused cliché ascribed to any band whose members have even a modicum of past experience. Ubiquitous and inescapable, super-groups are a dime a dozen, over-saturating the current rock scene with joint efforts that rarely come across as more than novelties.
Thus it's unsurprising that I was skeptical when James Mercer, the creative force behind indie darlings The Shins, and sonic guru Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, announced that their new group, Broken Bells, wouldn't be the ephemeral odd-couple attention-getting stunt that most would be anticipating, but rather the start of a meaningful, lasting endeavor.
Most would assume that Mercer and Burton's disparate styles would barely cohere enough to sustain an entire album, let alone an extended discography. To most they appeared to be just another 'super-group,' an excuse for indie icons to rub shoulders, stroke each other's egos and get a payday out of it.
Surprisingly, this is most definitely not the case, nor is that the end of the surprises that the album has to offer. Danger Mouse eschews his customary postmodern mash-ups and trendy sampling in favor of actual songwriting and playing real instruments.
This is a huge departure for Danger Mouse. Be it his aforementioned mash-ups and predilection for sampling or his consistent role as producer on countless recent albums, Burton tends to express himself through the works of others, filtering his artistic vision through preexisting material. As half of Broken Bells, Burton finally finds his own musical voice, becoming a creator as opposed to a borrower.
Furthermore, on their eponymous debut the duo handle all instrumentation themselves, so there's truly no one for Danger Mouse to hide behind. Standing on equal footing with Mercer throughout the album, Burton more than carries his own weight, co-writing each song and playing a diverse array of instruments throughout, from keyboards to drums to bass.
Mercer's role on the album is decidedly more predictable, as he'd already honed his songwriting acumen and instrumental proficiency during his tenure with The Shins. Nevertheless, Mercer does expand his horizons, as evidenced by his irresistible falsetto on the smash hit The Ghost Inside and his steadily improving guitar chops.
Thus two men who seem to operate at opposite ends of the indie spectrum manage to demonstrate terrific chemistry together, truly bringing out the best of each other throughout.
There are certainly times at which Broken Bells sound like a thinly veiled Shins clone, as Mercer's growth doesn't constitute anything approaching an artistic self-reinvention, but the band do indeed forge their own unique identity. Thankfully they never sound like 'The Shins as produced by Danger Mouse,' as Burton contributes far more creatively than he ever had during his lengthy producing career. He is a band-member rather than a producer, and his influence ensures that Broken Bells can seldom be mistaken for a cheap Shins knockoff.
Mercer's songwriting is indeed topnotch throughout, proving that he took this project just as seriously as his previous rock group. The album isn't a far cry from the likes of Chutes Too Narrow or Oh, Inverted World in the quality department, which is very high praise indeed.
The album opens on a high note with the stellar The High Road, a moody track filled with clever vocal melodies and superb world-weary delivery from Mercer. While Danger Mouse's signature scattered synthesizer gurglings may seem out of place, with time they prove to be a worthwhile component of the track, and they certainly don't detract from the overall experience.
The Ghost Inside is a deserved hit, an infectious pop-rocker that's probably the closest the album comes to a more traditional Danger Mouse track, complete with danceable rhythms and techno overtones. What separates the song from Burton's past oeuvre, however, is Mercer's brilliant showing on the track. Beyond his already alluded to falsetto, Mercer contributes stunning vocal hooks to the track, complete with an unforgettable refrain.
Those two tracks were the first singles released by the band, but excellent as they are they don't eclipse the rest of the album's content. Broken Bells is a highly consistent affair, boasting an array of terrific songs. From the menacing October to the profoundly catchy closer The Mall & Misery, the album features nary a misstep, a huge accomplishment for two men working together for the first time.
The album isn't without its flaws. As has been the case since his days with The Shins, Mercer's lyrics are a major liability, pretentious yet lacking in wit, insight or intelligence. There are cringe-inducing moments, but generally one can simply tune out this amateurish poetry, focusing on the way the lyrics are sung as opposed to what's being sung.
Thus Broken Bells is a superb debut, a filler-free product that depicts both musicians in top form. I hope that Mercer and Burton's promise to continue the project is fulfilled, as they clearly have only scratched the surface of what they're capable of as a unit.
If Broken Bells seemed to owe a debt to The Shins on their eponymous debut, then Meyrin Fields sees them truly come into their own as a self-contained rock group, free of both James Mercer and Danger Mouse's past entanglements.
Independent of these old influences, Broken Bells are able to forge a rich and unique sound for themselves. Danger Mouse feels like an even greater presence this time around, adding ambient and astral sounds that inject an other-worldly aura into the band's songs.
This sonic trickery never feels intrusive, extraneous or out-of-place, instead complementing Mercer's typically brilliant indie-pop acumen, resulting in a one-of-a-kind brand of psychedelic rock that's as captivating as it is distinctive.
While the band have struck upon an idiosyncratic musical voice, they never rely on atmosphere or formula to make their work compelling. Meyrin Fields finds Mercer and Burton at their best as songwriters, crafting incredibly catchy melodies, delivering complex yet immediate hooks and exploring a rich spectrum of bewitching sonic textures.
Thus on Meyrin Fields everything is in place to make a timeless indie classic. Clever hooks abound, the production is immaculate, Mercer's in top form as a vocalist and Danger Mouse provides an array of aural marvels as only he can. The problem, however, is simple: Meyrin Fields is less than twelve minutes long.
Instead of following their self-titled debut with another full album, Broken Bells have released a four-song EP. A four-song EP of short songs, no less. The result is something of a teaser for the listener. While it's always good business to leave the listener wanting more, Meyrin Fields truly tests that old adage, and it's debatable whether or not it holds up.
Truthfully, Meyrin Fields is everything one could ask for from such a short EP. All four tracks are genuinely excellent, compact psychedelic pop-rockers that surpass many of the numbers on Broken Bells' consistently strong debut. It's just frustrating to have such a rewarding sonic experience cut short so abruptly, unceremoniously wresting listeners from their musical bliss.
To adopt a more positive outlook, if these four songs are any indication of what the band's next full album will be like, then fans of the group are in for a treat indeed. It's just difficult to determine if the EP was released to tide fans over until the upcoming LP or to force them to endure the wait with even more desperation.
It may seem odd for an album as short as Rome to have a lengthy history behind it, but in reality the CD is a labor of love that's been in development for the last several years.
The seeds were sown when Danger Mouse (a much in-demand producer who was starting to come into his own as a songwriter) and Daniele Luppi (who had the dubious distinction of being the composer of the Sex & The City score) discovered that they shared a mutual fondness for the soundtracks of classic Italian cinema. It wasn't long before the duo decided to make something of this secret passion, but not a mere homage or tribute. If Danger Mouse and Luppi were going to do this, they were going to do it right.
The lengths that they went to in order to 'do it right,' however, transcended any rational expectations. The duo were deeply committed to this endeavor, and thus wanted to make it sound as 'authentic' as possible. This entailed not only recording the album in Italy but also recruiting old collaborators of soundtrack legend Ennio Morricone. Furthermore, the album was recorded exclusively on vintage equipment, ensuring that Rome was devoid of any studio polish or technological trickery.
Danger Mouse and Luppi must have recognized that a collection of faithful facsimiles of Morricone-style instrumentals would feel lacking in this day and age, so they brought in Jack White and Norah Jones to provide vocals on several tracks. Rather than coming across as a commercial concession, this decision greatly enriches the album as a whole. The performances feel like natural extensions of the music, in no way encroaching on Danger Mouse and Luppi's quest to preserve the 'purity' of their project.
It's clear that Danger Mouse and Luppi have taken extreme measures to ensure the authenticity of their music, and this is indeed admirable. This fidelity to classic Italian soundtracks can, however, come off as a gimmick. Nevertheless, when a gimmick is so deftly implemented it's easy to forgive an artist for embracing it. More importantly, any gimmickry on Rome is tempered by the composers' transparent love for the music they're imitating. Rome may seem like a novelty, and in the long run it may even be a novelty, but by no means are Danger Mouse and Luppi exploiting luminaries like Morricone. By styling their music after Morricone's work, the duo are celebrating an entire genre that has sadly been forgotten in this day and age, and whether or not this qualifies is a gimmick has little bearing on the merits of the album as a whole.
By these standards, the album is by all means a success. The music painstakingly recreates a type of music that most of today's record-buying public have doubtlessly never even heard before. This is not, however, enough to make a compelling album. No matter how adroitly one artist copies another, an imitation is still an imitation.
Fortunately, Rome is far more than a mere copy. Danger Mouse may be best known for experimenting with the work of others, but as his band Broken Bells demonstrates, he's an extremely gifted songwriter as well. Both he and Luppi prove to be masterful arrangers, resulting in immaculately presented music that may owe a debt to the likes of Morricone in style but certainly not in substance.
This is, however, not entirely a good thing. Even if Danger Mouse and Luppi can be credited with the melodies, they still fail to put their stamp on the project as a whole. Thus rather sounding like the original music that it is, Rome sounds like a newly discovered soundtrack by Morricone himself. While that may be a testament to how brilliantly Danger Mouse and Luppi have captured Morricone's style and feel, it also means that at the end of the day the duo have not really brought anything new to the table. As I remarked, Rome owes nothing to Morricone in substance. Nevertheless Morricone's style is so distinctive that nearly any melody following it will come across as an imitation. No matter how many creative hooks Danger Mouse and Luppi come up with, the music will still never truly be their own.
This is not an insurmountable problem. The instrumentals on Rome are still tremendously entertaining. Furthermore, the album sounds incredibly unique and distinctive, if only because no other contemporary rock artists have really tried to emulate Morricone. Thus what in reality is derivative feels fresh and exciting. I see nothing fundamentally wrong with this. The 'newness' of Rome may be illusory, but this doesn't diminish the effort that went into the crafting of the album. Danger Mouse and Luppi deserve a lot of credit, even if not for what they've been credited with.
There are other problems, however. While the instrumentals are highly enjoyable, they're not especially memorable. This isn't a crisis, but it does make some of the charm of the album a bit ephemeral in nature.
Luckily this does not extend to the songs with vocals. It's not a coincidence that the vocals, the only factors that compromise the purity of these Morricone recreations, happen to be the album's greatest assets. Jack White is in top form on Rome, penning lyrics that fit the album and delivering them with verve and passion. His vocal melodies expertly complement the music, almost making it seem as if vocals would have been appropriate for the work of Morricone himself.
Danger Mouse wisely writes the lyrics for the Norah Jones-sung tracks, enabling her to focus on an area in which she actually excels. Her vocals are superb, and lend a lot of extra heft to the songs they appear on.
All six tracks with vocals are highly memorable, in no way mirroring the fleeting pleasures of the instrumentals. This is not to say that I condemn the instrumentals, as a track needn't be memorable to be worthwhile. Even if the instrumentals feel somewhat like segues between the songs, they're still an essential part of the album, and vital to the enjoyment of Rome as a whole.
The album also benefits from clever sequencing, an art that's often lost in this era when proper albums are falling by the wayside. Any time Rome feels like it's being bogged down with too many instrumentals there'll be a stellar track like Jack White's menacing Two Against One. The songs are sagaciously staggered throughout the track-listing, creating a perfect equilibrium between songs and instrumentals.
Thus while Rome may not be all that unique when viewed from a broader perspective, it manages to seem profoundly idiosyncratic thanks to the short attention-spans and historical ignorance of this generation of music-listeners. Regardless of this, Rome is something of a curiosity, in that very few artists in this era would dare to make an album like this, or even think to. This makes the album seem fresher and more original than it may initially appear. Furthermore, even if other artists tried a similar stunt I can't imagine them handling it as brilliantly as Danger Mouse and Luppi have here. Their dedication to authenticity manages to take their gift for songwriting, their reverence for Morricone and the superb vocals of Norah Jones and Jack White and tie them all into a neat package that should be called unique for sheer effort alone.