It's hard not to come into a project like Broken Bells without high expectations. Hype has been building for months regarding the project between Shins singer/guitarist James Mercer and hip-hop/electronic producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton, of Gnarls Barkley and mash-up The Grey Album fame). You may not anticipate The Shins and Gnarls Barkley on the same CD, but you're anticipating something great because, well, Mercer and Burton have done some great things.
But power-teamings and supergroups that look good on paper often don't pan out in execution. There are inspired moments on the duo's 10-track debut, but this isn't the meeting of the musical minds most of us are, at least, subconsciously envisioning.
The good news is Broken Bells improves upon each listen. The disappointment you may feel during that first spin—the plateaued emotion, the retro/future kitchen-sink soundscapes that rarely pop, the good but rarely great hooks—fades, if not disappears, on subsequent listens. Your focus on the better moments sharpen, like during the almost unpredictable "The Mall and Misery," where psychedelica gives way to melodica, or the way the bass and the trumpet subtly vamp over the swingin' '60s organ notes—which take on an even more spiritual feel when the vocal harmonies emerge—and complementary acoustic strumming in "Vaporize." Shins fans ought to warm up to "Your Head Is on Fire," which finds Mercer in his comfort zone.
Occasionally, the clouds do part during Broken Bells. Patience and suspension of forecast eventually reward the listener.