Live Music + Gig Reviews

Broken Bells @ ICA, London

3 March 2010

The first British gig by new pairing James Mercer from The Shins and producer Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, was always going to be a bit of an event. It’s a muso’s dream team that’s brought some famous faces out for the evening, with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on one side and Mark Ronson hiding in the darkness at the back. The sterile ICA – with its seated bar area and copious places to sit and schmooze amongst the artwork – is the perfect venue and the crowd are expectant.

It’s a shame then that most of the evening manges to only just rise above the average. It starts well, with the hazy dream pop of recent single, The High Road, which manages to be both keening and completely relaxed. With Burton behind the drum kit, Mercer behind the mic and at least five other bodies on stage, it’s clearly not a vanity project that’s been thrown together at the last minute and their debut album is replicated perfectly. The problem is that much of the album is depressingly samey, with ’70s style organ fills, Beatles-esque melodies and more than a passing whiff of Air‘s Moon Safari.

It doesn’t help that the band play behind a projected wall of rapidly moving images that flicker and spin round seemingly at odds with the music. For the first few songs it works well and it’s an interesting experiment – not least because the band themselves barely move – but after a while it starts to grate and the disparity between the pace of the songs and the pace of the images becomes too off-putting. Even when Burton and Mercer return for an encore of Neil Young‘s Don’t Let It Bring You Down – which sees Mercer in fine voice accompanied by Burton on a Rhodes piano – the subtlety is ruined by what looks like the fuzz of a broken television screen flashing over top.

There’s still plenty to enjoy, however. Vaporize builds brilliantly from acoustic strums and Mercer’s surging vocals to a lovely coda of sweet backing vocals and warm horn blasts, whilst the plodding beat and joyful hand-claps of The Ghost Inside cause an outbreak of polite head nodding (this is a small London gig, everything’s done politely). The pace only really quickens for the rush of Mongrel Heart, which breezes along like something from an ’80s teen flick before disintegrating into a weird mix of Mariachi horns and electronic squiggles. It’s the one time the visuals seem completely appropriate.

A polite goodbye and a swift exit is followed by an encore that switches from the aforementioned Young cover to a relaxed run through of Tommy James And The Shondells‘ Crimson & Clover. As the intro starts up, a guitar pedal fails, and Mercer pauses and through a broad smile jokes, “That was gonna be so cool, that was gonna be sick!” It’s one of the few times he addresses the crowd, and it’s a moment of humanity on a night where everything was played with such precision and behind a literal screen that it feels almost revelatory to hear a mistake.

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Broken Bells @ ICA, London