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Live review: Broken Bells at the Troubadour

March 15, 2010 | 12:50 pm

Nearly 30-minutes into an hour-long set, and in the midst of a rather ornate keyboard-led number, Broken Bells lead singer James Mercer tried to put a naive lover in her place. "You got me wrong," he sang during the chorus of the exquisitely mid-tempo "October," calmly and coolly teasing a falsetto. Yet the frontman, best known for his day job fronting beloved indie-pop band the Shins, may as well have been addressing the audience. 

In Broken Bells, Mercer's collaboration with genre-shifting producer Danger Mouse, the singer swaps the jangly upbeat bounce of the Shins for something a bit more dreamy, and even at times a little soulful. For Danger Mouse (real name: Brian Burton), Broken Bells may not be nearly as groovy or as psychedelic as his partnership with Cee-Lo Green in Gnarls Barkley, yet a case could be made that it better shows off his skills as a melodic craftsman. 

With only 10 original songs that clock in at about 40 minutes, Broken Bells, performing as a 7-piece at the Troubadour, were a study in minimalism, using a mix of electronics and a standard bass, drum and guitar setup to whip up a brief set of mini-symphonies. Opener and lead-off single "The High Road," with zig-zag effects, a dusty rhythm, subtle harmonies and a Haight Ashbury-inspired keyboard, conjured a feeling of a long-lost vintage AM radio cut, yet still managed to feel utterly fresh.

Broken Bells aren't a group that works up much of a sweat. Only the forlorn, Southwestern-style guitars of "The Mall & Misery" threatened to overtake the soft-voiced Mercer. Instead, this is a band of texture and mood. Synths mimicked violins on the aforementioned song, and "Your Head Is on Fire" opened with a lengthy dub-meets-digital overture reminiscent of the Clash's beat-orientated experiments on "Sandinista!"

Saying little and shrouded in darkness much of the set, Mercer let his falsetto do the waltzing on "The Ghost Inside." Under a backdrop of Viewfinder-like kaleidoscope-effects, Danger Mouse stayed behind the drum kit for the majority of the songs, the rhythms shadowing rather than leading the singer. "The Ghost Inside" is the most obvious choice for a second single, with programmed handclaps and a Gorillaz-style retro-soul bass, illustrating that Broken Bells are equally comfortable on the dance floor.

A pair of choice covers in the encore illustrated the bridges Broken Bells are attempting to cross. Mercer and Danger Mouse went sans backing crew for a take on Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down," representing the more haunting aspects of the band's low-key approach. The night ended with a run-through of My Bloody Valentine's "When You Sleep." Rock critic bait, no doubt, but Broken Bells focused on the song's shifting keyboard textures rather than the original's wash of guitars, bleeding the song's pop hooks out of the weirdness. 

It was a fitting bookend to one of the set's first songs, "Vaporize," which played out as three-and-a-half minutes of meticulous, hook-filled experimentation. Keyboards morphed into what could have been a small horn section, and surprisingly lovely harmonies worked their way out of a fuzz-laden bass. "What amounts to a dream anymore?" Mercer wondered, and his band proceeded to investigate.

--Todd Martens

Poorly lit photo: Danger Mouse performs with Broken Bells at the Troubadour. Credit: Todd Martens