“I think some of you are too familiar with some of these songs,” James Mercer said with a knowing smile, acknowledging the packed room at Los Angeles’ Bootleg Theater on Friday night.
Imagine that. In the day when music seems to be teleported straight from the studio mixing console to fans’ iPods, fans are singing along to songs before they’re even released. Truth be told, however, the crowd for the surprise live debut of Broken Bells – the buzzed-about collaboration between Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and the Shins’ Mercer – was so thick with VIPs and friends of the band that cheers of recognition should have come as no surprise.
Performing in front of abstract, astral video projections, the duo, the focal points of a six-piece band, delivered a glistening set of ambient pop capped by Mercer’s pristine tenor. In brief flashes, the material off Broken Bells’ forthcoming debut (March 9 on Columbia) is reminiscent – emotionally, anyway – of another indie songwriter/beatmaker collaboration, the Postal Service. But what Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello were to your bedroom, Burton and Mercer are to the heavens.
Broken Bells’ broad sonic palette yields an arrestingly cinematic and choral take on guitar balladry, electro-pop, and white soul. Phil Spector with 21st-century toys? Here, Burton’s deft production has rendered those ghosts in the machines as voices in Broken Bells’ chorus.
Even the industry-heavy audience, which numbered fewer than 200, seemed awed by the band’s maiden voyage. Burton played mostly drums during the hourlong set, switching to guitar for one song and keys for a couple of others. The band included Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley sidemen Nate Walcott and Nik Freitas, and Jonathan Hischke and Dan Elkan, both ex-members of Hella.
After opening with the album’s teaser track, “The High Road,” the sextet — who just announced they’ll be playing at March’s SXSW in Texas — stretched out, segueing from “Vaporize’s” organ- and horn-flavored groove, to the trippy, tempo-shifting “Your Head Is on Fire,” to the psychedelic shimmer of “The Ghost Inside,” with its handclaps, tinkling piano and Mercer’s aching falsetto.
“Citizen” filtered the ’80s through Burton’s raygun; “Sailing to Nowhere” was but a string-section short of a symphony; and “Mongrel Heart” vaguely recalled “Under the Milky Way.”
The encore provided a nice touch too – with Burton (on keys) and Mercer covering Neutral Milk Hotel, and then the full band delivering a faithful rendition of Tommy James & the Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover.”
Mercer opens “Vaporize” by asking the question, “What amounts to a dream anymore?” On this night, Broken Bells did.
The High Road
Your Head Is on Fire
The Ghost Inside
Sailing to Nowhere
The Mall and the Misery
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Crimson & Clover