As an unexpected, left-field, typecast-busting side project similar to Gorillaz, the new collaboration between producer Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse, the auteur behind "The Grey Album," Gnarls Barkley and Beck's "Modern Guilt," among other worthy undertakings) and James Mercer (leader of the heartstring-tugging jangle-pop band the Shins) seems on the surface less likely to produce a pure pop gem. But the self-titled debut by this underground supergroup not only finds both artists stretching outside their comfort zones, it boasts some of the most striking songwriting that either talent has given us.
Veering from his usual working methods in the studio, Burton relies much less on samples and more on a large array of live instrumentation, including wheezing old-school keyboards and ambient synthesizers that could have been used on Brian Eno's "Another Green World." Meanwhile, the notoriously introspective Mercer sounds positively jaunty at some points (the gleeful waltz, "Sailing to Nowhere") and downright funky at others ("The Ghost Inside"), and he bravely stretches out as a vocalist to a deeper register at one extreme and a flittering falsetto at the other.
As already noted, however, the strength of the melodies carry the day, and they're strong enough to appeal to folks who've never heard anything else these new partners have done (and couldn't care less). In addition to the tracks mentioned above, other standouts include the indelible opener "The High Road," the '60s pop-inflected "Your Head Is On Fire" and the toy piano-driven "October."