I’m not sure whether James Mercer and Brian Burton (a.k.a. the lead singer of The Shins and DJ Danger Mouse, a.k.a. Broken Bells) originally planned to perform the material from their album live. Seemingly they’ve been working in the studio together since 2008 and, to me at least, the album sounds like one that was put together painstakingly in the studio rather than through loose jamming in the living room. In any case I was expecting to see just the two of them on stage tonight, but I was wrong: they were accompanied by five other musicians, with a varying mix of percussion, keyboards and guitars along with up to three vocal harmony lines.
I’ve seen their music described as “space age elevator tunes” and they certainly don’t fall too far from the middle of the road. For some of the slower tempo numbers it was probably a good thing that there were endlessly changing visuals projected onto and behind the band. In a live setting I felt that some of the tunes needed a bit more oomph to hold the attention. But the upbeat catchy tracks (the ones that best combine a Shins sound with a Gnarls Barkley beat) were really very good. And for all tracks it’s impressive how they recreated the full arrangement live, with minimal use of backing tracks or loops.
James Mercer has a really great voice. It sits perfectly in the indie pop mix and somehow he makes every melody sound more dynamic than the basic notes might suggest on paper. (Of course it helps that he has a great range as well – there aren’t many Shins songs that I’ve been brave enough to take on myself – except in the shower perhaps!)
There was no support act tonight and they played for about 70 minutes. With only one album to pick from that wasn’t too bad. To the full album (I think) they added a new track – a little heavier and pretty catchy – along with a track they wrote together for a Sparklehorse album and a cover of Crimson and Clover.
I think they ‘suffered’ from the fact that they’re not really a band per se, so we didn’t get any of that chummy camaraderie that you get with bands that have been together for a while. In fact, there wasn’t much emotion at all – a little more chat from James Mercer would have been welcome, if only to introduce the band members that, other than Brian Burton, were strangers to me (and presumably to just about everyone else in the room). The flip side of that is that the focus was on the music, with a refreshing lack of ego. And the music was good. Very good.