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I am hesitant to call Broken Bells a “supergroup”. Through credentials alone, the duo of James Mercer and Brian Burton almost definitely warrant the title. However, to me, the term “supergroup” conjures images of bloated rockstars, ego tripping and terrible names (Super Heavy vs. Chickenfoot in the battle of worst band names of all time).
Perhaps it is because of Mercer and Burton’s humble beginnings. Starting off in Albuquerque, New Mexico (certainly not a hotbed for any music scenes), Mercer began recording and writing music as The Shins in 1999 before getting a massive publicity boost from being featured in the 2004 hit, Garden State. Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, experienced unexpected leaps and bounds in popularity twice: Once with when his mash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album, dubbed The Grey Album, leaked onto the internet and gained approval from Jay-Z, Ringo, and Paul McCartney and again when his band Gnarls Barkley (along with Cee Lo Green) had a massive hit with their song, “Crazy”.
The duo met at Rosklide Festival in 2004, reconvening four years later to form Broken Bells and, again, unexpectedly finding success in their side-project. Their eponymous debut album was a top ten hit and had a lasting appeal to many, as evident by their sold out show at the House of Blues last night.
Synthpop trio, Au Revoir Simone (named after a line of dialogue from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse), opened the show to a nearly packed house. Despite forming in 2003, its difficult to not compare them to current big-name synthpop staples like Chvrches and Phantogram. Luckily for Au Revoir Simone, they have carved their own niche away from the big beat and arena hooks of the aforementioned bands by creating their own light music full of honey sweet melodies. In fact, they were in a buoyant mode last night and were very talkative in spite of their opener status. Though their music sounds like it would be more appropriate wafting across a festival breeze under a baking sun instead of this metallic box, an early highlight of the night was their latest single, “Crazy”.
Mercer and Burton took to the stage that looked more like the innards of the Millennium Falcon than the typical set-up you’d see for most bands. The duo stood opposite of each other, with matching custom keyboards set-up in front of them and bandmates flanking them. Mercer switched between his now almost customary double-cutaway Les Paul Jr, playing keys/synths and playing the role as frontman. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem very comfortable without an instrument in hand and didn’t really do much to engage the crowd.
Broken Bells played a near equal amount of songs from their self-titled debut and their latest album, After the Disco, though none of the songs from the latter really screamed out disco other than the title track. What they did do was fall into a tight, hip-hop-esque groove, that rarely relented. As Danger Mouse, Burton has a recognizable sound, a combination of the rhythmic sensibilities of hip-hop and the grandeur of film scores (the most iconic figure that comes to mind is Ennio Morricone), and he brought that funk in spades. Combined with Mercer’s intuitive pop-sensibilities, songs like “The High Road” and “Mongrel Heart” brought massive cheers from the sold-out crowd.
The duo began with the almost Harmonia-esque “Perfect World” from After The Disco. With a backdrop that switched between CG images of the cosmos, digital oceans, and hyperspace, the crowd was dutifully navigated through the song’s twisting corridors. Unfortunately, even with two other musicians accompanying them, the song didn’t quite live up to the space traveling rush of the album version. Other songs from After The Disco faced similar fates with most of the dynamics that are present on the album version being drowned out by un-needed reverb and a heavy, overpowering kick drum. However, that title track did groove and the crowd fought through the mixed sound quality and definitely enjoyed it. Cuts from their earlier albums such as “The Ghost Inside” and “The Mall and Misery” fared much better, their sparser production and arrangements lending themselves to the small band.
While mostly handling the keys/synths and bass, some of the best moments of the night were when Burton got behind the drumkit revealing an almost sample-like dedication to the back beat. Near the end of their initial set, Au Revior Simone joined the band for backing harmonies. Unfortunately, from where I was standing, the trio were drowned out in the mix.
Closing with an acoustic version of “Citizen” and a rousing version of “October”, its hard to place Broken Bells amongst other superfluous supergroups given the crowd’s rapturous applause. While they may not have the most consistent sound mix, they have a tight vision that they know how to execute.