An Annotated Media Guide To Danger Mouse
On February 24, 2004, music fans worldwide participated in a coordinated act of civil disobedience. Dubbed Grey Tuesday, the digital demonstration was this simple: Hundreds of websites posted a free download of The Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s mashup of the Beatles’ self-titled “White Album” and Jay Z’s The Black Album, and more than 100,000 fans used those posts to download the project for free. The Grey Album had attracted significant attention from critics and fans — the concept of an album-length mashup seemed somewhere between novel and revolutionary, and Danger Mouse’s execution was dope — but the young producer had also been catching flack from EMI, who was none too pleased about snippets of the Beatles’ music being circulated for free. So advocates of free digital music and fair use made their statement, and Danger Mouse’s budding celebrity was sealed.
Battles over fair use and the value of music still rage to this day with no resolution in sight, but 10 years later the one clear winner from Grey Tuesday is Danger Mouse, born Brian Burton, who spent the past decade becoming one of the most in-demand producers in music as well as perhaps the world’s most introverted rock star. As a performer, his duos Gnarls Barkley (with CeeLo Green) and Broken Bells (with James Mercer of the Shins) are hitmakers and festival mainstays. As a producer, he’s worked with everyone from blues rockers the Black Keys to lounge singer Norah Jones to dance-punks the Rapture to prog-rockers Portugal. The Man. He’s been a foil for titanic mercurial figures including Beck, Damon Albarn, and MF Doom. There are phases when he seems to be working on every new major release.
Despite the disparate collaborators, Danger Mouse puts his stamp on everything he does. His bright yet moody pop-psych magic touch has made him an ideal collaborator for performers who want to turn music-geek adventurousness into highly produced radio hits. A classic sideman, he is content to lurk in the shadows on stage and on record; he is always, always, always works with another figure who allows him to pull strings from the background. Fittingly, his music tends to work wonders as the backdrop for TV commercials and retail experiences. Even though few of the artists he has worked with classify traditionally as “indie rock,” he has been a major player in the evolution of “indie” as a lifestyle product. That’s made him a somewhat controversial figure (look up “Danger Mouse” on a Black Keys message board and bask in the ambivalence), but in an age when licensing your music has become a life preserver of many modern musicians, it’s also put him in heavy demand. That said, a vast range of musicians were lining up to work with Burton long before he became a commercial powerhouse, so it seems same to assume his creative energy is exceptionally magnetic too. It might be this simple: A lot of people on the giving and receiving ends of music love what this guy does.
Burton has racked up a tremendous resume over the years, but he may be reaching the peak of his power and influence in 2014. His second Broken Bells album, After The Disco, debuted in the top 5 on the Billboard 200, and his highest-profile production gig yet, the forthcoming U2 album, is expected to come out this summer. A long-gestating third Gnarls Barkley album is rumored — CeeLo confirmed some form of 2014 reunion late last year — and Burton is allegedly working involved with a new Frank Ocean album also tipped for summer release. Thus, there’s no better time to revisit where Burton’s been so far. Let’s go back to the beginning, before The Grey Album made him a star, to track Danger Mouse’s musical trajectory via his many career highlights.
Pelican City – “Chestnut Park” (2000)
Back when he was a Neutral Milk Hotel-remixing college radio DJ in Athens, Georgia, Burton released two LPs and a collaborative split EP under the name Pelican City. His sound back then was boilerplate trip-hop deeply indebted to the likes of Portishead and DJ Shadow. He hadn’t yet found his own sound, but “Chestnut Park,” a highlight from Pelican City’s 2000 sophomore LP Rhode Island, exhibits that the young Burton was already well-versed in the art of evoking a mood.
Danger Mouse And Jemini – “Ghetto Pop Life” (2003)
Burton moved to London after his stint at the University of Georgia and linked up with the rapper Jemini. Ghetto Pop Life, their debut album, harnessed the sounds of artful West Coast old-schoolers such as the Pharcyde and Tha Liks as well as the dirty South funk of Organized Noize, all of whom guested on the LP. (Danger Mouse’s first published CeeLo collab, “What U Sittin’ On,” was included as a U.S.-only bonus track.)
Danger Mouse – “Encore” (2004)
The Grey Album was Danger Mouse’s breakout moment, which seems strange now given that his work as a DJ and hip-hop producer has largely taken a backseat to his involvement with rock, pop, and soul records. But even though he’s moved on from the mashup medium and more or less from hip-hop in general, The Grey Album is indicative of where Burton’s sound would go. Cue up “Encore”; it’s easy to imagine the breaks from “Glass Onion” and “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” looped into a Gnarls Barkley single or something by Beck or Gorillaz. One sound he only occasionally comes back to, unfortunately: He’s never rocked as hard as when he mashed “99 Problems” with “Helter Skelter.”
Gorillaz – “Feel Good Inc.” (Feat. De La Soul) (2005)
Ironically, just after EMI exerted so much effort trying to wipe Danger Mouse’s music off the internet, his next project was producing Gorillaz’s sophomore LP Demon Days… for EMI. To this day “Feel Good Inc.” remains Gorillaz’s biggest hit and arguably the second most recognizable song in Damon Albarn’s oeuvre behind Blur’s “Song 2,” among Americans at least. It’s also one of the best four or five songs Danger Mouse has ever been involved with, a slinky and propulsive cartoon disco track with an irrepressible beat that makes Albarn’s sing-rapping sound almost as good as his richly evocative crooning. You can see why Burton won a Producer Of The Year Grammy for this record.
MF Doom & Danger Mouse – “Sofa King” (2005)
The Mouse And The Mask, Burton’s collaborative LP with boom-bap iconoclast MF Doom, was a hip-hop album, but its production was a far cry from the full-bodied organized noise Burton was kicking out on Ghetto Pop Life or even the looped Beatles samples of The Grey Album. There’s space in the mix, a graceful violin dancing the kick drum around Doom’s grimy impressionist bars.
The Rapture – “Pieces Of The People We Love” (2006)
Danger Mouse only produced a couple songs on the Rapture’s Echoes follow-up Pieces Of The People We Love. But the ones he did were crucial in the development of his sound, particularly the title track, a swinging rhythmic sing-song that essentially established the template for much of Burton’s future work with Gnarls Barkley, Beck, and the Black Keys.
Sparklehorse – “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” (2006)
To Burton’s eternal credit, he was involved with my favorite song by the late, great Mark Linkous. “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away,” which opens Sparklehorse’s Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain, is one of the most expertly constructed, gorgeously executed psych-pop songs in recent memory. One of Danger Mouse’s specialties is moody studio-rat psych, and this might be the pinnacle of that sound, an extraordinary music box of sadness that finds instruments popping in and out of the mix for maximum impact while Linkous delivers a heart-wrenchingly gentle vocal lead. The last minute of the song is astounding.
Gnarls Barkley – “Crazy” (2006)
“Crazy” was an instant classic, the biggest hit Burton has ever been a part of and almost certainly the best. Everything comes together here — the looped samples, the moody psych proclivities, the newly honed minimalist production style — in service of a powerhouse vocal from one of this generation’s most distinctive leading men. Both members of Gnarls Barkley would suffer from some backlash down the line as they went on to cultural ubiquity, but only an imbecile dares fuck with “Crazy.”
The Good, The Bad & The Queen – “Herculean” (2007)
Many of the sounds Burton later conjured on Broken Bells records were first explored on The Good, The Bad & The Queen, his collaboration with Damon Albarn, the Clash’s Paul Simonon, the Verve’s Simon Tong, and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen. Take those keyboard blips that introduce “Herculean,” for instance — they pop up on “The High Road” in service of a slightly skippier, airier song. “Herculean” is neither skippy nor airy; like the rest of the rest of the album, it’s a richly conceived mood piece.
The Black Keys – “Strange Times” (2008)
By 2008, Danger Mouse had already proved himself a musician capable of working in many milieus, but he still seemed like a radical choice for the Black Keys. In retrospect we’ve come to think of him as the partial architect of the Keys’ ascendancy to arena headliner status and Grammy glory, but the thought of these lo-fi blues rockers joining forces with this hip-hop producer, albeit a quirky hip-hop producer who was buds with Damon Albarn, seemed utterly odd. “Strange Times,” with its rabid guitars and colorful psych flourishes, was our first proof that the combination made sense after all.
Martina Topley-Bird – “Carnies” (2008)
We already saw how Burton started out doing trip-hop, so you’d think when given the chance to work with Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird for 2008’s The Blue God he’d be in Massive Attack mode. Instead, “Carnies” is arguably where the Danger Mouse sound solidified once and for all, where his signature tics became instantly identifiable (and if you’re in the anti-DM camp, the point where those tics became played out).
Beck – “Modern Guilt”
Beck was in a weird artistic skid by the time Burton teamed up with him to make Modern Guilt. And while that album didn’t exactly qualify as a radical comeback, as this guy on Twitter pointed out, it was an enjoyable synthesis of sad Beck and funky Beck, which happened to be right in Danger Mouse’s wheelhouse.
Broken Bells – “The High Road” (2010)
With the Shins seemingly dissolved, the prospect of a new James Mercer project was certainly better than nothing, and considering the Shins’ Wincing The Night Away found Mercer inching closer to Burton’s sonic territory, the pairing made sense. Like most of Mercer’s work throughout the past decade, Broken Bells is closer to pleasant than dumbfoundingly awesome.
Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – “Revenge” (Feat. The Flaming Lips) (2010)
Burton and Mark Linkous’s album Dark Night Of The Soul was marketed like a movie, though its format, with a different guest singer on each track, plays more like a series of short films than a blockbuster film. The exquisite Flaming Lips collab “Revenge” is indicative of the project’s downcast demeanor, a darkness that took on chilling resonance when Dark Night Of The Soul was released three months after Linkous committed suicide. On a more positive note, this marked the beginning of Burton’s musical partnership with James Mercer, although it didn’t come out until after the first Broken Bells record had already been released.
Danger Mouse & Danielle Luppi – “Two Against One” (Feat. Jack White) (2011)
Yet another long-gestating Danger Mouse partnership was Rome, a spaghetti-western-inspired song cycle Burton built with Italian composer Danielle Luppi. It’s not as emotionally weighty as Dark Night Of The Soul, nor were the results as entertaining, but it did foster later collaboration between Burton and Norah Jones. Here we hear the Jack White-sung single “Two Against One,” which is very Jack White-y indeed.
Norah Jones – “Happy Pills” (2012)
Norah Jones recruiting Danger Mouse in 2012 seemed even zanier than when the Black Keys did it in 2008, and the departure was far more radical. Little Broken Hearts sounded very little like the lounge music Jones made her name on and very much like the digitized soul-pop that is Burton’s bread and butter. The combination works better than I could have imagined (and better than I remembered.) Listen to “Happy Pills” again right now. It’s underrated!
Portugal. The Man – “Evil Friends” (2013)
Count Alaskan prog-rockers Portugal. The Man among the number whose identity complemented Danger Mouse’s signature sound rather than getting swallowed up by it completely. When the chorus hits with a flurry of harmonies and handclaps, it’s unmistakably a Danger Mouse joint. (Those lush passages also save the song from vocalist John Gourley’s incessant nasal cavity.)
U2 – “Invisible” (2014)
One thing that’s become clear while digging through Danger Mouse’s discography is how he knows when to get out of the way when he’s working on a great song, as opposed to the less electric compositions where he piles on layers of production. “Invisible” is the former; it’s one of the best U2 songs in a long time, so Burton lets it be that, only barely letting himself be known in the song’s fringe details. This is the surest sign that he’s growing as a producer, and it makes me genuinely curious who he’ll team up with next.