Collaborations between high profile musicians seem to be happening with increasing regularity – see the recent tie-ups Them Crooked Vultures, Monsters Of Folk and The Dead Weather. In prospect they’re often exciting, but in practise the results of their labours don’t always live up to the stellar billing.
Broken Bells is the result of a collaboration between James Mercer of The Shins and Brian Burton, aka Dangermouse. It’s a pairing that, on paper, sounds like the brilliant joining of well-respected indie pop and hip hop credentials. But set aside expectations: with Broken Bells there’s no jangly guitar fun in the manner of The Shins, and precious little of the experimental production stylings of Burton’s best work with Gorillaz or Gnarls Barkley.
The album opens strongly. The High Road shuffles along in its languid, summery vibe backed with some choir-like vocals, some handclap-like percussion and some bleep-like random electronic wizardry before, without warning, it gives way to a heavenly repeated refrain. For an album opener, it’s just about perfect. Cranking up the Hammond organ and shovelling in a trumpet solo, Vaporise builds on the groundwork. So far, so good.
And so it’s a shame that the album doesn’t push forwards from there. Instead it heads into derivative territory, where little sounds new; in that respect it has some connection to Mercer’s previous work, much of which borrowed heavily from the past. The pace is so chilled it would make a trip-hopper give up valium, and once past Vaporise it’s hard to take much notice. You suddenly find yourself at track seven, and don’t remember what’s come before.
Things do pick up again towards the end, although by now the debt owed to other artists is piling up. Citizen is essentially a straightforward ode to David Bowie, albeit a really quite lovely one. And after a long wait there’s finally an injection of pace in the form of Mongrel Heart, a blast of downbeat ’80s synthpop foreign to the rest of the album. A quickened bassline, some jerky organ playing, some spooky ooh-aah vocals and a strange western interlude demonstrate that there might be something to this collaboration. Maybe they’ll build on this and take some risks next time around.