Music Hall of Williamsburg
Wednesday, March 10
The Shins are a band girlfriends take boyfriends to see. Gnarls Barkley are a band boyfriends take girlfriends to see. So it’s no wonder that the crossover between the two turns out to be couples. Lots of them. Couples rubbing each others’ butts. Couples threatening paternal homicide through innocuous social-media banter: “My dad is on Facebook and I can totally see him stalking you.” Couples feeling out their futures over plastic cups and wistful pop. (Dude, excited, halfway through: “So what do you think?” Date: “[Long pause]” Dude, disappointed: “Just a bunch of guys playing music?” Date: “Yeaaaaaaahhhh.”) We can argue about this all you want, but I know what I saw.
The “acclaimed new musical collaboration” (Letterman’s words, above) between Danger Mouse and the Shins’ frontman James Mercer, Broken Bells first played live a month ago in Los Angeles and last night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg was their public New York debut. But since Gnarls Barkley are known, live, for full bands and elaborate costumes and the Shins are known, live, for sucking, where would Broken Bells would fall? Squarely in the middle. And so we have six men filing out onstage, all barely perceptible among the swirling patterns and creamy-frosted orbs projected onto their skin, the bearded Mercer out front with a microphone and a guitar, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) only detectable behind the drum set because of the silhouette of his hair.
The four we don’t know and two we do start, perhaps counter-intuitively, with “The High Road,” Broken Bells‘ gorgeous sweeping first single and its best song, a track released for free download last December. On record, it’s “Nights in White Satin” for the Williamsburg Waterfront, which is more of a compliment than it sounds. The tune’s downright stirring here, as is Mercer uttering the plaintive line, “I don’t know if the dead can talk”– Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous killed himself on Saturday and both men worked closely with him on Dark Night of the Soul. But there’s no mention of Linkous, or anything besides the reference points in these nostalgic pop songs: Air, Beach Boys, Beck (naturally), the “Age of Aquarius thing.”
Broken Bells sound like the Shins as much as the Greenberg soundtrack sounds like LCD Soundsystem. But these couples are here for a reason. So after Mercer and Mouse alone do Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and the full Broken Bells band returns to cover Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” a version that, yes, still makes me want to put on a nightgown and light a Virginia Slim, the dude with the unimpressed date yells for “Phantom Limb.” So maybe boyfriends take girlfriends to see the Shins too.