Artist: Bishop Allen
Label: Dead Oceans
Due Out: March 10th
From the first time I heard "Flight 180" off of the April EP, I knew there was something special about these guys. With all of their quirkiness and worldly vocabulary, they have managed to create a sound that is all their own, yet comfortably familiar. They have borrowed from a wide array of styles, and have covered a lot of ground in their relatively short existence. On their up-coming release, Grrr..., Bishop Allen has in many ways, gone back to their early, more rock-oriented style that people originally fell in love with them for. This, however, is not to say that they have recorded a second Charm School. What stands out to me right away, when listening to this album, is the refinement of their craft. The new batch of songs, while sounding reminiscent of their older tunes, is clearly informed by their more recent work. It is as if the band has found a balance between the the two sounds, and is back with something for everyone. I would even venture to say, that compared to their prior work, and as the album title suggests, this record has teeth.
The palm-muted guitars and questioning lyrics that begin the album's opener, "Dimmer", give us our first glimpse into a darker side of the band than we have seen on any previous release. Once it opens up, it's as bouncy as anything that we've come to expect from them, but there's a new uneasiness in singer Justin Rice's voice as he asks, "Am I dimmer everyday? Am I just a little glimmer?" This mood continues to the next track, "The Lion & the Teacup", another fairly catchy, but not quite cheery song. This song even makes use of marimba, and has a slight Spanish vibe, similar to "Castanets" from The Broken String. What gives this track its edge, is once again, the lyrical content, which gives the us feeling that something has not gone the way it was planned.
From there, we move to "South China Moon". This song is definitely one of the standouts. It has a classic Bishop Allen hook, and just the right amount of quirkiness, but the guitars on the bridge, chorus, and interlude are so massive, that they wouldn't sound out of place in an arena. The next track, "Dirt On Your New Shoes", is another song with really interesting instrumentation and a big sound. My favorite part of this one is the laid-back, almost sloppy back and forth guitar chatter during interlude. It brings something new to the table that we haven't seen from in the past, and breaks up the song nicely. This is followed by "Oklahoma". This song feels like a Charm School b-side. It steadily bounces along like much of that record does, and there isn't a whole lot to it. Not that there is really anything wrong with that, but it's noticeably different than what makes up most of the album. Interestingly enough, it seems that the general sound of the record makes a shift after this point.
The next song, "The Ancient Commonsense of Things", has a somewhat brighter sound than what you would expect from the tunes that came before it, and once again, it's another song with some traditionally Spanish-sounding elements, and reverb-laden guitars that are a bit reminiscent of surf rock. Following that is "True or False", which sees the only major use of brass on the record, and the only song featuring a female vocalist (who has yet to be identified) as the focal point. Even so, it fits in perfectly. Overall, it's very true to the Charm School sound, including gang vocals like those that were featured on "Penitentiary Bound" and "Little Black Ache". With the next track, "Rooftop Brawl", we start to get back into the edgier mold that was laid down by the first few songs. It starts off simple, then begins to build parts onto its frame as it goes. It's yet another track that has heavy Spanish and seemingly even Caribbean influences.
After that, is one of my personal favorites, "Shanghaied". This song, more than any other on this record, illustrates the band's sense for quirky storytelling. It's complete with what sounds like a chorus of sailors. Still, it holds it own extremely well, and is a really good track, especially at the breakdown. This is followed by "Don't Hideaway", also one of my favorites. This song is actually sung by Christian Rudder, the other official half of Bishop Allen, who is on backup duties most of the time. It's one of the more outwardly emotional tracks on the album. It has relatively basic instrumentation, but it gets across the mood of loneliness that the lyrics portray perfectly. It has one of the most immediately memorable hooks as well.
After this, "Cue the Elephants" begins to wrap up the record. Like the opener and a few others, this song builds up from what starts off with very little music and vocals. The opening guitar plays a fast, mandolin-like strumming part that reminds me of The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend. It's one of the few on Grrr... that is as melodramatic as what was seen on The Broken String, but it works here as an emotional and energetic release to help guide us to the close. The next song is "The Magpie". At only one minute and forty-five seconds, it's the shortest and probably the simplest on the release. It also contains one of the most beautiful moments on the album with its use of backing vocals toward the middle and end of the song. Finally, the album comes to an end with "Tiger, Tiger", a song with quite a sonic range. It begins with sleepy guitars and ends with cinematic strings and marching drums. It's a pleasing ending to the album.
This post makes it seem like the record is a marathon, but it's actually a very easy listen. There isn't a single song over three minutes and thirteen seconds, and the whole album clocks in at less than thirty-six minutes. There is just a lot to take in. The band has developed in a somewhat new direction, and it seems to be for the best. They've produced a record that's full of surprises. They took some risks, and I would say that those risks definitely paid off here. It's nice to see a band who can change from record to record without losing the essence of what made them unique to begin with.
Best Track: "Dimmer"