MUSIC REVIEW

Music review: Broken Bells at the 9:30 club

CHIMING IN: James Mercer on guitar and Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, here on keyboards, led a mostly low-key Broken Bells at the 9:30 club Monday night.
CHIMING IN: James Mercer on guitar and Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, here on keyboards, led a mostly low-key Broken Bells at the 9:30 club Monday night. (Kyle Gustafson For The Washington Post)
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Composer/DJ/producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton has likened himself to a film director. His various collaborators -- soul "sanger" Cee-Lo Green, the other half (or perhaps the remaining one-third) of Gnarls Barkley; or James Mercer, moonlighting frontman of indie quirksters the Shins, who is Burton's partner in Broken Bells -- are, the Mouse has said, his actors, contributing to the music in significant ways but ultimately submitting to Burton's governing vision. This, after all, is the guy who made his name with an unauthorized release that crossbred the Beatles' "White Album" and Jay-Z's "Black Album," with thrilling and hilarious results. So it's safe to assume he's a big-picture guy.

Mercer was the leading man of the seven-piece stage incarnation of Broken Bells that brought its ethereal but tightly structured dream-pop to a sold-out 9:30 club Monday night. Burton hopped among drums, guitar and keyboards but mostly looked like he'd just as soon be behind the camera. Mercer's newly emboldened falsetto imbued what are surprisingly conventional pop songs with an anxious, dislocated quality that occasionally recalled the early Talking Heads, minus the impish humor. Absent, too, was any trace of the gonzo theatricality of Gnarls Barkley's stage presentation.

The gig was a subdued, slow-burning affair that occasionally generated some friction when it came round to the tunes with the bigmouth choruses: the buoyant groove of "The Ghost Inside," the hypnotic rocker "The Mall and Misery."

Seeing these songs performed revealed little of the art or the artists, though it was fun to hear them sweeten their 70-minute set with a pair of oldies, Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" and Smokey Robinson's still-aching "You Really Got a Hold on Me." Only a dazzling futurist like Burton could make covering a Motown standard seem like a radical move.

-- Chris Klimek


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