After an appearance in last year’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Bishop Allen is back, and, thankfully, in customary form. Their third full-length album, Grrr…, is a mixed bag of twee-pop goodies that, although nothing prolific, is sure to please both loyal fans and new audiences. Bishop Allen has taken the guilty pleasures of twee, infectious guitar riffs and simple percussion, and matched them with advanced instrumentation that only seasoned musicians like Christian Rudder and Justin Rice (QRO interview) could deliver. That pairing, along with lyrics laced with Ivy League pretension (and can you blame them? Rudder and Rice met while studying at Harvard), combine to make the 13 songs on Grrr…. In a fashion true to the band, at times the songs seem completely unrelated in composition and content, making the album function more as a mixtape. But it is safe to note that out of the genre-bending hodgepodge, Bishop Allen is at its best when delivering sweet, carefree pop.
The band admittedly returns to a style reminiscent of their 2003 debut, Charm School. The compositional disparity between the two albums, however, is obvious. The looped drum beats used on Charm School evolved to dynamic percussion on Grrr…, showing musical maturity. This evolution could be attributed in large part to the massive EP project the band took on in 2006, which lead to the addition of permanent band members aside from Rice and Rudder. Every month of 2006, the band cranked out a four-song EP. The most promising of the EPs’ songs were tweaked and polished to become the 2007 album The Broken String (QRO review). This collection was a virtual cut and paste album, resulting from twelve months of experimentation. Lonesome strings, varying guitar techniques and the addition of more exotic instruments marked what was obviously Bishop Allen’s right of passage into musicianship.
Grrr…’s sound is a bit of a contradiction. Although the tracks contain gum-snapping pop qualities, they revamp the standard twee code. The smart addition of plucked guitars and tinkling marimbas leave one hesitant to use words like “adorable” to describe the sound, but while listening to the record the adjective is unavoidable. With its overshooting metaphorical lyrics and jangly pop, the opening track, “Dimmer,” encompasses the direction the album is going. This track, plus “Oklahoma” and “The Ancient Commonsense of Things” are surefire hits for old fans, and most closely resembling the original Bishop Allen sound. Rice’s voice serves as the perfect compliment to the bouncy songs, and the harmonies with Rudder, most notably on “South China Moon,” are absolutely charming. Keyboardist and percussionist Darbie Nowatka, added to the band’s line-up after her work with the EP project, took charge of vocals on “True or False.” Although her subdued soprano won hearts on The Broken String’s “Butterfly Nets,” Nowatka, who is Rice’s fiancé, was overpowered by this upbeat tune.
Even with increasing exposure, Bishop Allen has remained true to their roots. Grrr…’s songs have just the right amount of pop to have mass appeal, making them liable to end up on the next Michael Cera mixtape. The unabashedly catchy songs on Grrr… may not be life altering, but they will have the even the most ardent indie kid bopping along.