A producer too fast and too unique to be triangulated
Brian Burton, the name behind the persona of Danger Mouse is one of the most prolific producers on the scene at the moment. With a catalogue of releases spanning hip-hop, rock, pop, folk and ambient he also possesses many modules to his synthesiser (the updated ‘bow to his string’ idiom I’m pioneering) and has garnered unconditional fame and respect with his consistent and increasing successes.
Burton crashed onto the scene in 2004 with “The Grey Album”, the ambitious mash up of two of the most iconic records in their respective genres, The Beatles self titled EP, erroneously known as “The White Album” and Jay Z’s “The Black Album”, to produce, of course, “The Grey Album”. The release was beset by controversy, drummed up by EMI while they attempted to halt distribution of the mixtape despite Jay and Paul McCartney’s respective blessings. However, controversy breeds success, and Danger Mouse was soon being sought out by well-respected artists to collaborate. Burton has now gone on to work with Gorillaz, Cee Lo Green (under Gnarls Barkley), Beck, The Rapture, James Mercer of the Shins (Broken Bells) and the Black Keys.
Burton’s success, it can be argued, is down to his unpredictability, his lack of a ‘calling card’ or reoccurring themes. Time and time again, DM has shown to be malleable to his collaborator of the hour, capturing the mood perfectly and creating a sound unique to that project. It’s difficult to draw comparisons between albums “St. Elsewhere”, “El Camino”, “Broken Bells”, “The Good The Bad and The Queen”, other than their obvious quality and the love and finesse put into their recordings. Burton dives head first into his projects and works from the ground up.
And what now? Look out for Danger Mouse’s new artist collaboration, just the return album of a little band called U2. You might have heard of them.
The Grey Album (DJ Danger Mouse + Jay Z)
”A lot of people just assume I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction. It’s not an easy thing to do”. Brian Burton, 2005 [Rimmer]
As already described, “The Grey Album” is a mash-up of the a cappella takes from Jay Z’s “The Black Album” and remixed beats from the Beatles self-titled EP. This release was Danger Mouse’s slingshot, catapulting him into the public eye, through the overall quality of the mix as well as the ensuing controversy.
“The Grey Album” shines at the times Burton manages to take Jay’s words and Beatles’ music and create something that stands alone. When the track retains something from each artist, but still has its own personal feel, thanks to a perfect customised fit from Burton. When Danger Mouse can add 2 and 2 and get 5. ‘Encore’ is an example of this. The stuttering replay of ‘Glass Onion’ doesn’t remind someone of the original beat, but convinces that this should in fact be the original beat. The samples of Lennon’s sultry ‘Oh yeah’ blends seamlessly with Jay’s celebration of his own global domination and success, opening up a whole new mood to the song.
‘My 1st Song’ also achieves this additive effect in Burton’s mixes. The already difficult task of blending Jay and Beatles is amplified through the antecedent mash-up of Beatles ‘Cry Baby Cry’ vocals and ‘Savoy Truffle’ riffs to form the beat.
Saying this, there are times where the mash-ups are sutured together rather than seamed. ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’/'Julia’ feels like wasted potential, and a clumsy, forced, last resort mix to fit in Jay’s top hit. Other tracks such as ‘Moment of Clarity’, Beatles songs are chopped and changed to the point of anonymity, adding nothing unique and losing the integral paradigm of “The White Album”.
Overall, “The Grey Album” at times is a fresh combination of the Beatles classic charm with Jay’s contemporary brashness producing a stand-alone piece that is, at times, utterly unique and peerless.
Demon Days (Gorillaz)
‘Danger Mouse, in my opinion, is one of the best young producers in the world.’ Damon Albarn, 2004 [MTV]
“Demon Days” was Danger Mouse’s first production gig for a renowned artist. Blur’s Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz had already taken the world by storm with their self-titled EP with hits like ‘Clint Eastwood’ and ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ in 2001 and Burton was tasked with continuing this trend.
“Demon Days” was the first act in a long friendship and fruitful partnership with Damon Albarn. The pair are full of compliments for eachother and have gone on to work together on The Good, The Bad and The Queen, yet another band of Albarn’s.
“Demon Days” is where Burton first expresses his range and variability. Even on one album, Burton can mastermind the maniacal, sinister ‘Feel Good Inc’, the clubby, infectious Dare, the funky ‘Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head’ and the melancholic traditional hip-hop in ‘November Has Come’.
Burton stretches his producing wings here with the inclusion of choral verses in tracks like Dirty Harry and Demon Days, while mixing in classical violin along with anthemic snares in the album closer. However, Demon Days, the track, and some others can almost feel cluttered. It sometimes seems like there was so many ideas from multiple personalities, that they were all included, leaving Burton to form a coherent sequence. Sometimes certain elements of a song seem tacked on in the background, or in a bridge, when their absence may have added rather than detracted (eg. The ending scrap to ‘Fire…’ and many aspects of ‘O Green World’).
Rome (Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi)
‘Many of the musicians were in their 70s, but they were obviously capable. First day, they all came in and you could tell it was the first time they had been in the same room for a long time. They were hugging, some tears. But then, about two hours in, they’re all yelling at each other.’ Danger Mouse, 2011 [Guardian]
“Rome” was released in 2011, as a collaboration with Italian producer and composer Daniele Luppi. This album was one of the few times when Burton was the one doing the approaching for a new project. “Rome” was Danger Mouse’s baby, a throwback to the soundtrack composers of old, of Italian love stories and spaghetti westerns. A soundtrack without a film. The album was five years in the making, features vintage instrumentals from original western composers and features the vocals of Jack White and Norah Jones. This represented one of Burton’s first departures from hip-hop when it was first proposed.
“Rome” ebbs and flows from track to track as any soundtrack should. Simple subtle interludes blend songs from one to the other, cleansing the palate between Jones and White’s interchanging vocals. Swelling choirs (‘Theme of Rome’), absorbing percussion (‘Roman Blue’) and melancholic riffs (‘The World’) all reveal Burton’s footprints extending throughout the project. Though there is no accompanying film, these pieces can build their own atmosphere, built personally by the listener. The male and female vocals clash in an orchestrated manner. Jack White, jittery, full of angst juxtaposes to Jones’ dreamy, love-filled reposes.
Towards the end of the album, one can become weary of “Rome”, a soundtrack without a film has a certain romance about it, but it comes with the poisoned chalice of being vulnerable to becoming purely background music in itself. This occurs in some of the longer instrumental songs such as ‘Her Hollow Ways’ and after losing interest, it is difficult to drag yourself back in. In the end, Rome is masterful in igniting nostalgia, in its production and in its track to track architecture but can falter in attracting the listener’s attention for the entirety.