Music Monday: Toned Down Rock, Jazzed Up Rihanna

>Broken Bells, Broken Bells
(Columbia) March 9

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Columbia

Brian Burton and James Mercer are no strangers to the hype machine. While one is responsible for having produced quite possibly the catchiest song of all time, the other unintentionally "changed the lives" of a navel-gazing indie youth (blame it on Natalie Portman!).

It makes sense, then, that Burton (better known as Danger Mouse, of Gnarls Barkley fame) and Mercer would choose to take a quieter road on this particular sonic journey. The highly anticipated and rather mysterious collaboration between the two has been taking shape since the pair met in 2004, and the inevitable buzz has been building steadily thanks to a cryptic marketing campaign and a small, secret showcase in LA last month.

What results from a seemingly odd marriage is actually not that surprising; Burton's breadth of work spans from his own band to producing Beck's Modern Guilt, to teaming up with rapper MF Doom, to creating the Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up record, The Grey Album. Here, he brings all the inventive production sensibilities of his louder, funkier work to the more reclusive space of Broken Bells and Mercer's introspective world.

The album opens with video game blips and glitches and gorgeously layered harmonies on "The High Road," a track that Mercer supplies with the perfect blend of grit and trademark flawless melodies. It doesn't feel like a debut track should—not right away, at least. "Cause they know, and so do I/The high road is hard to find," Mercer laments. He needn't worry though—it seems he's found it with Burton. Broken Bells somehow feels instantly familiar and classic, an album that you've already spent some time with.

Burton's exploration of psychedelic synths, delicate piano and strings, and orchestral strength laid over a hip hop heartbeat work in tandem with Mercer's bittersweet lyrics. This partnership is at its best on "Sailing to Nowhere" and the album's strongest track—"The Ghost Inside." Opening with a sultry drum beat and some handclaps, the track features a terrific falsetto from Mercer; there's a subtlety and sophistication at work here that feels fresh and different from their previous work. While Broken Bells might not be as innovative or adventurous as previous Danger Mouse productions, its 37-minute run is an enjoyable one. Rather than trying to convince anyone of its merit, Broken Bells feels like an experiment made for the pair alone—it's a thoughtful look into one's own life that can often come off as indulgent when placed in the wrong hands. Thankfully, it wasn't.



Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
(EMI) March 9

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EMI

While Danger Mouse has his project coming out tomorrow, his former partner-in-crime Damon Albarn is back with the long awaited Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. Like his former collaborator, Albarn is turning things down a notch. This third album finds Albarn exploring calmer, groovier soundscapes this time around, bringing in a slew of new kids to help out. The crew is an eclectic one—Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, De La Soul, Little Dragon, and The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, just to name a few of the talents featured on the album. Gorillaz released the video for the first single, "Stylo," last week, featuring Bobby Womack, Mos Def, and...Bruce Willis? It's another great visual masterpiece of our animated friends. Check out the video at their official YouTube account.

Jamie Cullum, The Pursuit
(Verve Forecast-Universal) March 3

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Verve Forecast-Universal

Jamie Cullum, the British jazz-pop artist (whom one reviewer described as having "more balls than Michael Bublé"), released his fifth album, The Pursuit, last week and is full of all the fun and daring of his previous works. From his trademark raspy voice to his bold piano riffs, it's a solid record—and who doesn't love a jazzy Rihanna cover?

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Aylin Zafar is a freelance writer based in New York.

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