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Music Review

Broken Bells struggles to ring clear

Broken Bells should not be playing at the House of Blues. But hold on, there’s a caveat. While the band has undeniably talented musicians and songwriters that play tidily crafted melancholy electro-pop that is engaging and pleasant to listen to from the comfort of your own earbuds, it is simply bigger than it would be under other circumstances.

The two principals’ day jobs — James Mercer, the leader of the Shins, is joined by producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse — have elevated them to a status that outreaches the music’s more modest grasp. And so, a performance that would have been enjoyable in a smaller club setting was swallowed up by the scope of the sold-out show on Wednesday night in the large hall.

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A few songs from the band’s recent “After the Disco” and its 2010 self-titled debut managed to muscle their way through the compression, but for the most part, it sounded like listening to music on an iPhone you’d dropped between the couch cushions.

The four-piece launched into “Perfect World,” with its plinky synths and wistful hook. The rare visceral effect of the insistent bass line here gave way to meandering sections meant to evoke celestial atmosphere — an idea reinforced by the planetarium-style visuals projected behind the band. And then the members did something really weird, they played a live fade-out. If that’s not evidence of
adhering too closely to reproducing the record, then nothing is.

“He sounds exactly like he does on the record,” a fan at the bar nearby enthused. He does indeed.

“You guys [expletive] rock,” came a cry that ripped through the quiet of the closing. That’s not exactly accurate.

“The Ghost Inside,” a well-earned hit, has a compelling groove, with Mercer’s falsetto, and Danger Mouse’s creepy synth lines evoking the titular apparition; and “After the Disco,” another perfectly honed laptop dance-party number, invigorated somewhat, but like too many of the songs here (“Holding On for Life” to name another), it came off like the Bee Gees with a Xanax script.

As the players traded instruments, as on “Meyrin Fields,” they worked up some energy, with the drums finally thundering at an appropriate level for the space. On the other side of the coin, Mercer’s acoustic-led turn on “Vaporize,” although more subdued, landed more successfully. Perhaps because it sounds like a Shins song.

Toward the end of the set they invited up the three ladies of Au Revoir Simone, who opened with a set of electronic dream-pop, to serve as a backup chorus, which seemed promising, but ultimately, like most of the night, got lost in the mix.

Luke O’Neil can be reached at lukeoneil47@gmail.com.
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