20 March 2009

I just don't get it. (There, now I said it.)

Oh, Bishop Allen. Why must you make things so complicated?

I came across Bishop Allen back in mid-2007 when a friend told me to "go download every free mp3 on their website." Said friend has impeccable taste in music, so I did as I was told, and the rest is a long, complicated, emotional history of the past two years and the people and places in-between. Chances are if there's a poignant moment in that period, I've commemorated it with a Bishop Allen track. They have become – nay, have always been – a band that makes me cry, as the above friend once noted a few months ago, taking the proverbial words right out of my mouth.

Many complained that their second LP, The Broken String, released in the summer of 2007, was merely a "best of" their EP collection and ergo, nothing new, nothing gained. I disagree; while, on the whole, I prefer the EP versions of their songs to the album versions (something known as Demoitis), each version carries its own particular significance. It's hard to truly forgo one in favour of the other.

Enter anticipation of their third effort, the strangely but perhaps aptly-titled Grr.

I can’t really say anything bad about Grr.

That being said, I can't really say anything spectacular about it, either. An odd sentiment when one considers that it is an album of flawless pop songs.

The problem largely lies in the fact that the Bishop Allen formula has become predictable. The melodies are predictable, the harmonies predictable, the lyrics predictable. What was interesting, quirky or innovative on their freshman and sophomore efforts seems more contrived the third time around.

Not that this is damning at all. Remember, these are flawless songs, after all. Opening track, "Dimmer," is quintessential Bishop Allen, something that could sit comfortably among the tracks from The Broken String. The sparse orchestration of closer "Tiger, Tiger," with the haunting strings and percussion and not much else, ends the record on sobering, more mature note. In-between we’re treated to gems like "Dirt On Your New Shoes," swelling to its lyrical climax fifteen seconds from the end, or the lovely, pleading "Don't Hide Away" and "True or False." When I get past my dislike for the whisper-singing in "South China Moon," I’m greeted with a sweeping refrain and a richly orchestrated bridge.

But, while I like "The Lion & The Teacup," I’m forced to think why I should prefer it over "Like Castanets," "Oklahoma" over "The Chinatown Bus," "Cue The Elephants" over "The Same Fire."

These are perfect, joyous, sing-along friendly pop gems. But it all lacks the same, unpolished, raw feel from Charm School (and earlier punk project, Pissed Officers). It lacks the same emotional punch that made Broken String and the twelve EPs that preceded it so memorable. It's a little too polished, a little too refined and, well. A little too Bishop Allen. (Is it possible to be a little too yourself?) And while I'll take Bishop Allen's brand of predictability over a majority of bands' any day, it truly does equate to "nothing new, nothing gained" this time around.

Bishop Allen - "The Ancient Commonsense of Things" [link]
Bishop Allen - "Dimmer" [link]

Bishop Allen are currently on tour in support of Grr from now through at least May. Tour dates - including 2nd April at Iron Horse, 3rd April at the Middle East down, 4th April at Music Hall of Williamsburg, and 5th April at Bowery Ballroom - are listed on their website, as I'm entirely too lazy to repost them here.

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