James Mercer of Broken Bells performs at LC Pavilion Thursday (photo by Andy Downing)
In a recent interview, Broken Bells frontman James Mercer spoke of learning to open up to a world he’d long shut out. But Thursday at LC Pavilion, the characters in the band’s songs tended to walk a far more solitary path, struggling to locate a tangible, human connection.
“What a lovely day to be lonely,” Mercer sighed on the shimmering, disco-tinged “Holding on for Life.”
The duo, which consists of Mercer, best known for his work with Portland indie-rockers The Shins, and producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton), who has teamed with The Black Keys and is currently in the midst of producing the new U2 album, appeared here in support of its sophomore album, After the Disco, a mellow effort inline with its late-night title.
Much of the band’s hourlong set mirrored the low-key personalities of its twin creative forces. Mercer, for one, tended to keep the banter to a minimum — “We’re Broken Bells,” he offered early on, “but I suppose you knew” — while Burton remained silent throughout, rotating between keyboard, bass and drums with ghostly efficiency. The music, in turn, tended to simmer rather than boiling over, the group, fleshed out to a four-piece for this tour, crafting a woozy soundscape flecked with retro-futuristic synthesizer, languid bass and Mercer’s pliable vocals, which on occasion flirted with vintage soul.
As a producer, Burton has made funkier records (see: his work with Cee-Lo in Gnarls Barkley) and ventured further into hazy psychedelia (Sparklehorse’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain), but his work alongside Mercer almost better shows off his craftsman's hand. The songs here were colored with unexpected textures: the spaghetti western guitar that closed out “Control”; the sticky, molasses-smooth bassline that rippled through “Angel and the Fool”; the horror-flick organ that briefly disrupted the peace on “Mongrel Heart.”
In general, the songs were crisply arranged, and even in those rare moments when a player broke free — on “The Mall & Misery” the band’s supporting guitarist let loose a rumpled solo that loosened its collar and tousled its hair just so — they quickly fell back in line.
Yet, even amidst this order, Mercer sounded freed. He flashed a surprising falsetto on a slinky “The Ghost Inside,” leaned into “Control” like a blossoming soul man, and, on “Leave It Alone,” a song far more shattered than its glossy finish would have one believe, he growled the line “You can’t change me” like a man determined to stand his ground.
Of course, considering his recent personal development, it’s a safe bet Mercer felt more closely tied to the narrator in “Vaporize,” a punchy tune where he offered up a lyric that felt especially apt on this night: “It’s not too late to feel a little more alive.”