James “Danger Mouse” Burton has the ear to make positive contributions to just about any musical project. He has laid beats for rappers like MF Doom, provided the background music for Cee Lo Green in Gnarls Barkley, and created an award-winning mash-up of Jay-Z’s Black and The Beatles’ White albums. His most recent project is Broken Bells, a super group including The Shins’ lead singer James Mercer. Like the majority of projects he’s been involved in, the result is a success. The group’s first single, “The High Road,” is also its best song.
It can be deceptive how involved Burton is in the music when the band plays in a live setting, such as the group’s sold-out December concert at the Newport Music Hall. Burton often sits behind a small drum kit, supplying simple drum beats like the one found in “The High Road,” while a full supporting band shares the stage with the two big names on the ticket. In the studio, however, Burton designs most of the music, with the exception of Mercer’s guitar parts.
Mercer deserves commendation for his contribution to the project, however. Burton has a knack for matching music with a song’s vocals, but when the vocals belong to Mercer, the task is easy. Mercer’s crooning is well-suited for the gloomy content of the song (of course, he did write the lyrics). Burton supplements Mercer’s vocals with a subtle-yet-playful synthesizer melody and a chorus of soft voices adds harmony to the refrain.
As the song mentions, “the high road is hard to find,” but apparently an ideal matchup, such as Burton and Mercer, was not so tough to find. The duo has already announced plans for a follow-up record, which is good news for alternative fans. The two could switch directions completely on the next album, but under Burton’s care, no one should be worried.