Broken Bells, "Broken Bells" (Columbia)

Broken Bells is James Mercer, frontman from the Shins, and producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), half of Gnarls Barkley. Both are scholars of retro pop, and their collaboration reinforces that tendency all too strongly. "Broken Bells" is couched in all the gamesmanship that two smart hipsters can share. It's clever, purposeful, circumscribed and ultimately aloof, bundling grim sentiments in the comforts of yesteryear.

But anger is muted in the sound of these songs. So is nearly any other overt emotion except pride in craftsmanship. The lyrics are suffused with disappointment, betrayal and pessimism.

The tracks on "Broken Bells" are an origami of influences, blurring sources and revivals. Are the slightly distorted drums and not-quite-in-tune synthesizer in "The High Road" from 1960s bachelor-pad music or Stereolab's revision of it? Do the hand claps and ticking drums in "The Ghost Inside" hark back to late-1970s electro or to Danger Mouse's production for Gorillaz? Too many of Broken Bells' revivals have already been thoroughly explored. Their production numbs the songs. What could have been cries from the heart are turned into in-jokes.


Jamie Cullum, "The Pursuit" (Verve)

This British pianist/vocalist has built a career on performing clever jazz standards and surprising pop covers. His fifth studio album finds him taking on more original compositions and fewer covers, but with mixed results. His "You and Me Are Gone" is a lively combination of show tunes, samba, jazz and funk, while his reading of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop the Music" is compelling and unnatural (in hearing talking about getting naughty on the dance floor). However, the album focuses more on the tired sounds of anthemic, emotion-driven rock and jazzed-up ballads.