Quick Concert Review: Broken Bells

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Talent is a mysterious mistress. Some people sit back and rely upon what talent allows them to do effortlessly. With others, internal drive combines with talent and finds a way to overcome any obstacle in its path to greatness. Talent is on the front burner in Washington, DC these days, as the most-hyped amateur in history is drafted first overall by the Nationals, and the heretofore most-hyped amateur in history made an epic 14-strikeout debut in his first Major League start on Tuesday against the lowly Pirates. Bryce Harper and Steven Strasburg have injected a buzz into a town that has not really felt the love for the franchise since it opened up in its taxpayer-funded monstrosity of a stadium that thoughtlessly features a parking garage in left field. And another in center field.  (Genius!)  Fresh talent and untapped potential give rise to hope and excitement, and DC’s baseball fans are now sufficiently amped to set that aesthetic affront aside, if only for a night here and there, to see for themselves if hype can possibly be matched by performance.

Musical supergroups comprised of talented individuals are also hyped before earning their buzz. Why? The Internet, mostly, and a corresponding modern fascination with continually moving onto the Next Big Thing at fiber optic speed. Perhaps we could label this phenomena “Luke Skywalker Syndrome.” Broken Bells is a supergroup of sorts that is combining the prodigious talents of James Mercer, formerly the creative influence and lead singer of The Shins, with Brian Burton, who many know better as his alter ego, Danger Mouse.  And in fairness, any group featuring two prodigious talents is inherently exciting, and even more so when one adds in the exceptional talent comprising the rest of this 7-piece live act.

Continuing the metaphor, more often than not the “Rookie of the Year” is not the player who arrived upon the scene with the most buzz. That player may or may not be one of the best when all is said and done, but others often produce greater initial results. In this vein, one could listen to the brilliant debut records by The XX and Sleigh Bells and easily conclude that despite the hyped talent of Broken Bells, they are yet not as “fully-realized” as these two fresh acts.

This is not to say that the band was incapable of impressing with a solid show last Monday night at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club, but rather that at this juncture they are a collection of parts where the sum is not much greater than the parts. Luckily, the parts are of high quality. The band’s debut album features only ten songs, many of which sound like they could be Shins’ rarities that have undergone minor remixes. The size of their catalog meant that the sold-out performance would necessarily feature covers and elongated jams, (but alas, not even an acoustic one-man performance of any tunes from Mercer’s previous band).  Instead, Broken Bells covered both Smokey Robinson and Sparklehorse, the combination of which must be a fairly rare occurrence in the course of musical events. A couple of their songs sounded very much like Gorillaz (Your Head is on Fire, The Ghost is Inside), and ironically those moments were the ones where the band seemed to take on its own identity. Or perhaps it is simply the flip side of the coin given Danger Mouse’s production work with both Gorillaz and another iteration of Damon Albarn‘s career, The Good, The Bad & The Queen.  Another, (The Mall & Misery) had moments that brought to mind an updated version of what James did way back on Seven. Their talent is abundantly evident, regardless, and it will be worth watching this band to see if they will rely upon talent alone or if they will eventually work together and truly collaborate.  Hopefully, Mercer doesn’t decide to repeat history and fire the entire band before they earn the accolades rightfully accorded to his previous project.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.