Show Review: Broken Bells @ House of Blues 3.5.14
by Siena Faughnan (History), published March 12th 2014
Broken Bells arrived on stage like a vision of the future. Surrounded by galactic imagery and assorted glowing orbs, James Mercer and Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, ascended toward two white, half-moon keyboards, podiums from which they prepared to transmit their space rock prophecy. And the sold-out crowd at House of Blues welcomed them like oracles.
There is a definite sense of that the duo could be something that the indie music scene hasn’t encountered before. Forming in 2009, they represented a very New Age conception of what a band could be. James Mercer, indie rock prince and frontman of The Shins, and Danger Mouse, prolific producer and half of Gnarls Barkley, began working together simply as fans of each other’s work. They embraced their differences to form a sound that combined the best of each of their universes, possessing indie rock sensibilities and electronica otherworldliness.
This new sound, a certain eclectic inter-genre resonance, delighted fans, and the release of their first self-titled album as Broken Bells in 2010 lived up to the hype. Broken Bells seems to cater to a millennial crowd and they specialize in a perfectly of-the-moment mesh of the ambient and anthemic. Additionally, the group is less than six degrees of separation from probably any musician you’re currently listening to, with a list of associated artists spanning from U2 to Modest Mouse and Gorillaz. The popularity they’ve experienced is unsurprising.
If this night’s sold-out show was any indicator, their fans are still pretty enamored (two women behind me continuously screamed marriage proposals and sexual invitations as their husbands happily enjoyed the performance). But four years later, Broken Bells are struggling to stay on the cutting edge. They just released their sophomore album, After the Disco, this March, but as they kicked off the show with the album single “Perfect World,” they already seemed kind of tired of it. The album suffers from a certain over-polished predictability and the performance, which never strayed far from their recorded sound, did the same.
As the band moved through song after song, the pair remained anchored to the safety of their keyboards, reluctant to engage in the crowd, which didn’t help them from being swallowed up by an already inappropriately large venue. But that’s not to say that Mercer and Burton themselves aren’t talented musicians, or that the golden days of their collaboration are over. As they settled into the second half of their set and began playing songs from their first album, including personal favorites such as “October,” “Mongrel Heart” and “The High Road,” their appeal once again shined through. Over amped up drumbeats, dystopian synths and Mercer’s signature indie pop vocals, Broken Bells may not have delivered prophecy, but did reaffirm that they can continue to be the sound of the not–so-distant-future.