Broken Bells, The Morning Benders @ Henry Fonda Music Box 05/19/10
It took James Mercer and Brian Burton six years to bring their creative vision to fruition; a journey that unofficially started in Denmark and officially kicked off Wednesday night in Los Angeles during the Broken Bells' first night of their first tour.
After a chance meeting at the Roskilde Festival, where Mercer, front man for the Shins and Burton, known in other circles as Danger Mouse, both voiced a shared love of each other's work, the two set in on this lateral project that would further catapult them into the stratosphere.
At the Henry Fonda Music Box, set against a colorfully distracting barrage of greens, blues and other hues, the Broken Bells flexed their super group muscle by smashing mediocrity and aiming for perfection. While many praised the release, others complained that the album contributed nothing new to the lexicon of indie-rock. If their album can feel somewhat unoriginal, however, their live performance lives and breathes authenticity showcasing a sound crafted by musicians so smoothly attuned to their craft you get the feeling that practice aint even in their repertoire.
Playing and performing are two separate things, though, and Mercer clearly hasn't mastered the latter.
Mercer once told music blog Quietus that with the Broken Bells, "[T]here wasn't anything premeditated about it at all. I just wanted to be in a band. Hopefully people don't pay too much attention to what I've said or done in the past."
Perhaps Mercer feels the same about performing live. I get it, he's shy, but watching a Shins performance, where the music is usually nothing more than a lovely series of simple beats that playfully tugged at our hearts (and youth), it was hard not to notice the lead singer's lackluster personality.
With Broken Bells, however, Mercer is able to blend in behind a half-dozen uber talented musicians, including Burton who may not just be a genius but a magician for his sleight of hand in forcing us to focus everywhere else.
During the show, your reviewer was less distracted by Mercer's blank face than the artfully constructed and beautifully arranged notes that make up their eponymous debut, which was produced by Burton's alter ego Danger Mouse. Their Fonda performance Wednesday night was a monument to creativity, highlighting the genius of Danger Mouse and the six players whose horns, pianos, drums, etc. made the show one of the year's best thus far.
Plus, Mercer was able to hide in plain sight while black and green, black and blue and black and purple lights shoved your gaze elsewhere.
(Opening band The Morning Benders set the table nicely for Broken Bells, delivering their signature brand of emo-infused, shoegazer rock that sat well with the cool California crowd who lapped up their sound.)
The Broken Bells show lasted just under 90 minutes, owing much to their dearth of material with just one album. But in that hour-and-a-half, Mercer, Burton, et al, dusted off a show worthy of their high sound.
Starting off with album opener "The High Road," Mercer showed his penchant for pitch perfection with high arcing vocals and a supporting chorus behind him that put an exclamation point on an already stellar song.
'Sailing to Nowhere,' which features the sounds of the seas on album, showcased no such sound effects in person. Instead, the song unfurled two-thirds of the way in with syncopating pianos and strings that had the feeling of an oceanic journey with passengers swaying, cooing for more.
Next, the Bells swayed from their album with the great Tommy James & The Shondells song, "Crimson & Clover' - a home run in its own right made eve better with Mercer lending vocals.
Eighty-five minutes in, after an encore, the show was signed, sealed and delivered by the finale, "The Mall and Misery," which also ends the album. Mercer and Burton slinked back on stage, momentarily shedding their band with the two-headed monster's etching out the song's first few notes with austere beauty; Mercer on guitar and Burton on drums. A minute later, they were joined by the Broken Bells, proper, allowing the full force of the band to hammer home the album's most ghastly and beautiful song.
"I know what I know," Mercer sang. "But nothing will fill the hole, so let your mind go straight down the runway." And with that we were off.