Broken Bells Make It Look Easy at Webster HallMarch 10th, 2014
Broken Bells – Webster Hall – March 8, 2014
The name Broken Bells is an odd choice for a collaboration between two musicians each extremely talented in his own right. It all began back in 2004 when James Mercer (of the Shins) and Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse) met at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival and had a moment of “Hey, we love each other’s music, so let’s make some together.” The partnership more than just panned out. In 2009, the duo put out their first single, “The High Road,” a song you couldn’t escape that year. Now a fully realized and impressively talented live band, Broken Bells came to a very sold-out Webster Hall on Friday night, fresh on the heels of their latest release, After the Disco.
So why do I find the band name so odd? With most collaborations or supergroup situations, you can pick apart the music and figure out who wrote what. But that’s next to impossible to do with Broken Bells, and their live show gives no further clues. There’s nothing broken about this collaboration. Taking a note from the Beatles’ playbook, all their songwriting credits go simply to “Burton/Mercer.” Even the instruments they played offered no hints as to who pitched which songs to whom, saying, “What do you think of this one?” Sometimes Mercer had just a microphone, and sometimes he was behind a guitar and singing. Burton began the set behind keyboards, before performing a few songs on the bass and then on the drums. The two have pop music in their blood, and despite only two full-length releases and an EP to the partnership’s name, they can still fill out an impressive set of irresistibly catchy songs with no apparent lulls.
Opening band Au Revoir Simone joined Broken Bells for their last few songs, providing background vocals on “Medicine” and “Leave It Alone.” And although they were also onstage singing along to “The High Road,” they were overpowered by everyone in the audience. Mercer’s vocal range was even more impressive than it generally is on Shins’ songs. But it was still perhaps a gutsy move to leave “October” for the encore. I imagine that with it jumping in and out of falsetto, the number is difficult on the vocal chords to perform after singing so many other challenging songs for more than an hour, but Mercer made it look easy. In fact, both musicians make their craft look easy: They’re naturals, but it’s still impressive how the two can seamlessly bring together their talents and have plenty of songs to show for it. —Dan Rickershauser