If Rob Gordon, the hapless record store owner and man-child in the movie High Fidelity, were trying to boost sales in 2010, he’d swap The Beta Band for Broken Bells. (If you haven’t seen the flick, you shouldn’t be reading record reviews in an alt-weekly.) Heads would bob, wallets would open and this one-off project from Shins frontman James Mercer and super-producer Danger Mouse would be declared an instant two-man stimulus package for the ailing Championship Vinyl.
At its core, Broken Bells is the ultimate soundtrack for lazy Sundays, a left-field pop trip through the perils of modern life and love, complete with an apparent screed against consumerism (“The Mall & Misery”). The themes are well-trod ground for Mercer: young love, broken hearts, lonely lives—and redemption, maybe. But the album is not Shins Redux. Nor is it another Grey Album. Built around deceptively simple beats, swirling synth and a strummed acoustic, it’s hip-hop for the twee set. It won’t lift your pulse, but it doesn’t need to. Broken Bells is two handfuls of groovy meditations on the unbearable lightness of being normal.
On “Vaporize,” one of the record’s best tracks, Danger Mouse channels Al Kooper’s keys while Mercer delivers a simple message: Don’t waste your time on lies and ghosts, move on. Seven songs later, the horns in “Mongrel Heart” evoke a high-noon showdown from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Broken Bells isn’t a perfect marriage. “Your Head Is on Fire” sounds like something Syd Barrett hid from Pink Floyd—for good reason. And the middle of the record, with its dreamy pacing, will sag for all but the sleepiest stoners. But then it finishes with three killer cuts that make you wonder where these guys were all along.