The self-titled debut album from Broken Bells has a quiet kind of charm. It’s subtle, winding through a diverse repertoire of layered vocal harmonies and constantly shifting sheets of instrumentation. Born from collaboration between The Shins frontman James Mercer and producer/multi-instrumentalist Brian Burton (also known as Danger Mouse), Broken Bells is a musical medley sure to please your palate.
Mercer and Burton have pretty disparate styles—Mercer’s mellow introspective indie-pop songs stand in stark contrast to, say, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” or Burton’s Grey Album (an innovative Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up). But Burton’s producing skills and penchant for hip-hop-friendly electronics and danceable beats take Mercer’s acoustic guitar and distinctive croon in new directions.
The album’s first track, “The High Road,” is a low-key anthem with a cool slinking bass and spacey atmospheric effects swathed over layers of Mercer’s sweet voice and Shins-esque guitars. Broken Bells is bound together with plenty of reverb, multiple harmonies, and poppy synth melodies. Despite these constants among the tracks, the album is full of dynamic song structures and a mishmash of stylistic techniques. “The Ghost Inside” is slick and danceable, but it’s most memorable for its uncharacteristic falsetto from Mercer. Even so, it still manages to avoid sounding forced, something that accents the duo’s exquisite songwriting talent.
Burton’s ability to blend genres comes to the surface of songs like “Sailing to Nowhere,” which morphs smoothly from a macabre cabaret melody to an atmospheric waltz. Subtle twisting hints of psychedelic pop and orchestral string ensembles underscore the album, coming to the fore on “October.”
The experimentation isn’t radical or even necessarily groundbreaking, but Burton’s flair for producing and Mercer’s writing make a well-matched pair. Broken Bells is definitely an enjoyable album, for all its dynamism and intricate harmonies. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.