June 1, 2010
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Broken Bells is a project that started out as an idea that became a band that became a live act and somewhere in the middle could have stopped and become nothing at all.
Whatever it is, it played 13 songs that spanned an hour at the Vic Monday. Two of the seven musicians onstage have credible pedigrees: James Mercer, the lead singer of the Shins, and Brian Burton of Gnarls Barkley who also is known as Danger Mouse, a professional collaborator-producer-hypemaker.
The music on the collaboration’s self-titled recorded debut is an uneven collection of studio confectionary that is too studied to be whimsical but can be admired for its individual parts. The seriousness of the effort showed in their live incarnations. Despite the carefully constructed arrangements, vocal parts and rhythmic tics — and even a few trumpet interludes — no one onstage looked like they were having a whole lot of fun.
The reason points directly to the lack of chemistry between Mercer and Burton. While the former appeared to be as sunny as his bright and youthful voice, the latter performed like he was sorry he was missing that night’s Blackhawks game. Burton played drums, guitar and piano, and he was suited to none of them. His drumming prevented any of the songs from taking flight; instead of driving the beat front and center, he was playing from far in the back seat like he was just fine riding the fumes. The songs slogged on as a result.
Many of the new songs felt slight, patched together with disparate ideas that made some songs feel more like snippets. But others like “The Ghost Inside,” were more cohesive. Spiky guitars built around Mercer’s falsetto vocal until the song grew with greater scope and was topped with a trumpet echoing the melody. On “The High Road,” Mercer’s vocals were punched up by handclaps and a bed of spongy sonic effects.
With so many players onstage, they played briefly and didn’t have much opportunity to hit any stride. That only happened twice, with covers of two 1960s nuggets: “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells and Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me.” The band nailed both, especially Mercer who stayed faithful to the original vocals but played with them enough that they had his signature.
As terrific as they were, the covers did make the case that the band sounded better playing other people’s songs than their own. Could indie pop cover band be the next incarnation? Book your wedding now.