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Broken Bells feeling a sense of liberation with 'After the Disco'

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Danger Mouse had his heart set on a glimpse of Jupiter.

On a recent evening, the sonic mastermind of L.A.'s Broken Bells was standing in line at the Griffith Observatory, waiting to peer through the giant Zeiss telescope there. As closing time approached, though, an attendant announced that anyone still outside the telescope dome wasn't likely to get the chance that night.

Danger Mouse didn't budge.

The vast expanse of outer space — specifically as viewed from the observatory — served as an important source of inspiration for the new Broken Bells album, "After the Disco." Released Tuesday, when it zoomed quickly to No. 1 on iTunes, the disc is the second full-length from the two-man supergroup that pairs Danger Mouse, known for his production work with acts such as the Black Keys and Beck, and singer James Mercer of the popular indie-rock band the Shins.

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"It's kind of freeing to look up and think about how small we are," Danger Mouse (born Brian Burton) said as he stood on the roof deck beneath a star-speckled sky. The producer remembered visiting the spot with Mercer and Jacob Gentry, who directed a series of short films, set to music from "After the Disco," in which actors Kate Mara and Anton Yelchin play a couple of lonely looking astronauts.

"You realize," he added, "that it doesn't really matter what we all do."

A welcome sense of liberation flows through Broken Bells' new album, the follow-up to the band's self-titled 2010 debut. On that record, which sold 425,000 copies and spawned an alternative-rock radio hit in "The High Road," Mercer and Danger Mouse came across like meticulous studio scientists, splicing together disparate styles — slick synth-pop, spiky post-punk, sweeping spaghetti-western movie music — for songs that sparkled but sometimes lacked feeling.

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They're looser and livelier on "After the Disco," which swings even as Mercer chews over his worries about global warming or being abandoned by a lover.

"You gotta give it up," he sings in the slyly funky "Control," "You lost control 'cause nothing stays around too long."

Over drinks at a bar near Griffith Park, where the band repaired after being turned away finally from the Zeiss, Mercer said he felt more relaxed making the new album than he did "Broken Bells," his first significant project outside the Shins.

"I was kind of nervous going into that one," the singer said. "I felt like I had to prove myself to my bandmates and my friends. And to you," he told Danger Mouse, a serial collaborator whose other projects include Gnarls Barkley (with singer Cee Lo Green) and a role as producer on U2's next album.

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"This time, I didn't have to live up to something," Mercer said. "It was so laid-back."

The two wrote songs from scratch in the studio, surrounded by instruments and recording gear. Danger Mouse recalled that "Medicine," a slinky new wave cut that echoes the Cure, began with a beat he'd programmed to subtly alter a live drummer's groove.

"Then we just went off that and started messing around," he said.

Allusions to other music crop up constantly throughout "After the Disco," as in the Duran Duran-ish "Perfect World" and "Holding on for Life," in which Mercer nails Barry Gibb's breathy falsetto. Yet Broken Bells frames them cleverly.

"Danger Mouse really brings it on this record," said Jason Bentley, who's had the group on his tastemaking "Morning Becomes Eclectic" radio show on KCRW-FM (89.9). "He's such a thoughtful curator of ideas and sounds and influences. You feel like you're hearing these parts of pop culture stirred up in a new way."

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Even with "After the Disco" finished and in stores, that stirring continues. Last month, Mercer and Danger Mouse were rehearsing with several other musicians in preparation for a North American tour that's set to kick off Feb. 28. (They're on the bill for April's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.)

For Broken Bells, presenting their new songs in concert means translating them from the studio, where virtually anything is possible, to the stage, where a band's range is limited by what can be played (mostly) by hand.

This week, the group provided a possible preview of its live approach with an appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" in which it covered the Beatles' "And I Love Her" while playing along with a sample of Ringo Starr's drumming from "I Am the Walrus."

At the bar, Danger Mouse said, "We've gotten ourselves into some dilemmas," referring with a laugh to some hard-to-reproduce material from "After the Disco." "But it's fun to figure this stuff out."

"And it's enjoyable to bring it to people — to communicate," said Mercer.

"We're all just looking to relate," Danger Mouse said. "I mean, nobody wants to be alone in the world, right?"

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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