Now at the fortunate stage in his career where he can afford to be fussy with the projects he takes, fêted producer Danger Mouse—here billed sans pseudonym, as Brian Burton—collaborates with Shins mouthpiece and guitarist James Mercer for Broken Bells, an album that shoots for a happy medium between Mercer’s alternative folk and Burton’s madcap hip-hop. The result isn’t quite as consistent as lead single “The High Road” would imply, as the pair struggles to comprehensively fuse their two extremely different sounds. There are instances where Mercer seems awkwardly unsuited to this electronic flavor, and others where his usually deft beatsmith provides ill-matched instrumentals for Mercer’s subdued crooning.
The abovementioned single represents the very best this collaboration has to offer. The track is built on Burton’s amorphous blips and bleeps, while Mercer provides straightforward acoustic guitar and consummate vocals, sashaying between downcast murmurs and forceful wailing with distinction. The refrain is then reinforced with an army of handclapping and warm choral chanting, putting the finishing touches on an infectious opener.
From there, Broken Bells envelops itself in mellifluous ‘60s psychedelica. “Vaporize” sports an oscillating keyboard hook and a sprightly brass break, while “Your Head Is on Fire” employs lo-fi vocals and steel guitar. And in the record’s most satisfying twist, “Mongrel Heart” exploits baleful organs, mariachi horns, and deathly string arrangements to craft the most sinister of psychedelic rock numbers. The duo begins to find a comfortable middle ground here, with Mercer happily strumming away while Burton saturates the tracks with wistful electronic sounds.
Unfortunately, though, the formula loses momentum during the album’s middle section, where the overarching theme is tweaked trivially to little avail on “Sailing to Nowhere,” “Trap Doors,” and “October.” And when any significant changes are made, they’re for the worse. Burton’s booming grooves are ever-present on the funky “The Ghost Inside,” but the Shins frontman sounds unconvincing when reaching for the higher octaves over the song’s syncopated industrial beat.
At its very best, when the collaboration clicks, Broken Bells boasts some truly marvelous songs, but these peaks are sandwiched between tracks that struggle to exceed colorless tedium. The ‘60s vibe works well to a point, but the duo has a difficult time maintaining an engrossing sound over the album’s 10 tracks. And that such a petite record feels flabby and labored makes it clear that a match made in heaven this is not.