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Last Night: Broken Bells (+ The Morning Benders) at the Music Box

Broken Bells (Mr. Mouse, center and Mr. Mercer, right)
Broken Bells (Mr. Mouse, center and Mr. Mercer, right)
Timothy Norris

Broken Bells played their second show in LA in only a few months last night at the Music Box (again, per: memo--it's never to be called "the Henry Fonda" ever again. Easy mnemonic: the Fonda didn't have odd, humongous Hieronymous Bosch blow-ups. The Music Box does.) The gig coincided with the announcement that the Shins continue to be on hiatus and singer James Mercer is enjoying so much his partnership with Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) that plans are being made to start work on a second Broken Bells album.

So much for "side-project"...

Actually, the show last night was evidence of solid interest in whatever these two talented gents are up to with this Broken Bells thing/project/album/band. One can be cynical and remember that the combination of the Shins' frontman soft-pop confections (plus his sizable fanbase, which grew huge among well-groomed suburbanites courtesy of Zach Braff, Natalie Portman and Garden State) and Danger Mouse's slightly-retro atmospherics (plus a slightly different sizable fanbase, courtesy of novelty renegade hit The Grey Album and neo-soul smash "Crazy") was the result of a managerial brainstorming (read the very revealing interview Mercer and Burton did for The Quietus). But cynicism doesn't account for the fact that the pair, backed by a solid band at the Music Box, were giving their combined audience exactly what you would think when you describe the "band" to people unfamiliar with the name Broken Bells: "it's the guy from the Shins with Danger Mouse."

The Morning Benders
The Morning Benders
Timothy Norris

Opening act The Morning Benders provided a more than adequate start to the bill. They're presenting their new album Big Echo, and the slowly filing-in crowd (the sold-out nature of the event was noticeable only as the night progressed) really enjoyed their combination of catchy, Radioheadish/Coldplayish melodies, soft harmonies, a general "oh gosh" politeness (they invited the audience to chat with them at the merch table), with occasional bursts of frantic guitar freakout.

The Morning Benders' frontman Chris Chu
The Morning Benders' frontman Chris Chu
Timothy Norris

Incidentally, one might not realize it at first, but what underlies a lot of the Benders' material is a very filtered version of reggae, of the mainstream variety that was ubiquitous in Californian suburbs in the 90s. It's as if the kids weaned to the inescapable strains of the Bob Marley Legend CD (from the Columbia Record Club, a little smudgy and fingerprinted) had grown with the soothing cadences deep in their subconscious, which then underscored their teen Radiohead obsessions.

The Benders' best song, however, and rightfully the set closer, ditched the post-rock, post-reggae vibe. "Excuses" is an unexpected single whose DNA goes all the way back to some kind of doo-wop and, live, ends in a flurry of sheer sound. Fans of the Little Joy album will dig, though those looking for a similar aura in the rest of their material will be confused.

No confusion at all when Mercer, Burton and the live companions charged with executing their studio vision took the state. Mercer is still the slightly melancholy, slightly anthemic everyman from the Shins' oeuvre, and Burton is still a furtive presence, walking around the stage and dropping and picking up instruments as if he were in his basement. (Even the easily spooked Roky Erickson the night before at the same venue engaged more with his audience than the studiedly oblivious Mr. Mouse.)

The Shi...err... Broken Bells' James Mercer
The Shi...err... Broken Bells' James Mercer
Timothy Norris

In a nutshell: the packed house ate it up. Rabid Shins' fans (yes, there are rabid Shins' fans) pressed themselves as close to the stage as they could, singing along to the quirky Broken Bells material and waving their hands in the air like if they were in a Jovi concert. Even the sit-down balcony crowd, a little older and NPRish was beaming and applauding as much as the rest. This is particularly odd given that the Broken Bells songs are not particularly rousing, and nothing in the album has the stamp of a runaway single.

These people are ALL ABOUT THE SHINS
These people are ALL ABOUT THE SHINS
Timothy Norris

This became more evident when the band performed their cover of "Crimson and Clover," which had everyone singing along and dancing. Both Mercer and Burton proved that they can write and old-school single if they choose to, but for the Broken Bells album they kept things more relaxed and "groovy." Live, the material sounds like a really solid set by some 1969 psychedelic also-rans, like the guys who got turned on by "I Am the Walrus" but took a little while to release it in a local label in, say, Albuquerque.

The songs are almost uniformly hazy, ("Blue Jay Way" seems a more fitting template than "Walrus"), with the Danger Mouse touch sounding particularly Beatlesque. Burton's drumming sounds a lot like someone obsessed with Ringo's drumming between '67 and '69, by no means a bad thing. And his interventions on the electric organ were a neat cross between Lennon ("Sexy Sadie") and McCartney ("Let It Be")--exhibit A: the existential "Citizen".

As for Mercer's singing, nothing surprising or different from the usual Shins bag o'tricks, including his remarkable falsetto, which brought the sixties-sounding stuff for a moment to a meta-point by evoking sixties-obsessives Hall and Oates ("The Ghost Inside"). The "60s through the 80s" elements at other times made the band almost sound like Tears for Fears.

Other than "Crimson & Clover," they stuck to the album tracks, with one exception: "Lullaby" during the encore, performed as a low-key duet between Mercer and Burton.

The furtive Mr. Burton (aka Danger Mouse)
The furtive Mr. Burton (aka Danger Mouse)
Timothy Norris

Overall, what's most remarkable about the undeniable success of the Broken Bells project is that musically Mercer and Burton are not doing anything that different from what Elephant 6 groups from the mid-90s like Apples in Stereo were going for with much less acclaim or crowds. I could ponder some more about what their "special sauce" is, but I'm on a tight deadline. Maybe the commenters will help me out.

Set List:

Vaporize

High Road

Your Head is on Fire

The Ghost Inside

Citizen

Trap Doors

Sailing to Nowhere

Crimson & Clover

Mongrel Heart

The Mall and Misery

...........

Lullaby

October