Bishū fujimigahara by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1890
Through a strange series of circumstances, I found myself in possession of a copy of Grrr..., the new album from Bishop Allen. Bishop Allen will always be a favorite of mine for their EP-a-month project of 2006, where they released the equivalent of three top-notch albums over the course of the year in the form of monthly mail-order EPs. A project like that is demanding on a band, but it can gain you a lot of fans. Unfortunately, you're also training those fans to expect instant gratification. Since the EP project, Bishop Allen's only release has been Bishop Allen & the Broken String, which was, for the most part, a repackaging and update of some of the songs from the EP project. I'm glad I had a chance to hear Grrr... now, because I'm not sure I would have been able to wait until its release date on March 10th to hear it. For the most part, it doesn't disappoint.
Bishop Allen got some constructive criticism for The Broken String - many people thought that dressing up the demo-esque songs from the EP project didn't work well, as Bishop Allen didn't know how to apply their new resources with a light touch. They learned their lesson, I think - they have dialed everything back a couple notches on Grrr.... In fact, you could say that the album is almost too low-key and stripped down. The band's leaders, Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, have stated that the album is at least a partial return to the simple indie-pop of their first album, Charm School, and I think this is accurate. Grrr... is not a step backward, though - the confidence, concision, and subtlety on display in the songwriting and arrangements point to a new maturity in Bishop Allen's approach.
Grrr... starts with two Charm Schoolish songs, "Dimmer" and "The Lion & the Teacup" that indicate where the band is going with this album. The two songs that follow, though, bring back some of the epic bombast of The Broken String, and it doesn't work as well in the context of these songs - they don't really stand up to the last album's "Flight 180". Starting with the fifth song, though, Bishop Allen really hits their stride, delivering seven great songs in a row, emphasizing pop hooks and bouncy rhythms. "The Ancient Commonsense of Things" delivers the album's most memorable chorus, but "True or False" is the highlight for me. I admit that I didn't think that Darbie Nowatka's vocals on The Broken String blended well with the band's sound, but her vocal on "True or False" is a real delight, backed up by handclaps and a woozy brass section. The album loses a little momentum with the last two songs, but at a running time of 36 minutes and none of the songs lasting more than three minutes, nothing on Grrr... overstays its welcome.
Bishop Allen have made an album that delivers on the promise of their early work, which should delight fans who have wanted to hear Clementines, the aborted follow-up to Charm School that evolved into the EP project. One of my favorite Bishop Allen songs, "Last Chance America", was supposed to be a highlight of Clementines but ended up never getting on an album. I think that Grrr... captures a lot of that same energy, and it may end up being one of my most-listened-to records of 2009. Look for it on March 10th from Dead Oceans Records.
"Last Chance America" by Bishop Allen