Four long years ago, Bishop Allen made a quiet but significant rumble with its indie-pop debut, Charm School. Light-hearted and sing-songy, its catchiness made up for its uber-cutesiness — and certain songs even found life playing over montages in edgier teen movies. Such promising debuts lead to the anticipation and eventual backlash of the sophomore record, but Bishop Allen seemed to snub this notion all together, falling silent for several years. It’s a testament to Charm School’s longevity that the band’s name was still tossed around.
Or perhaps it was when we realized what these humble Harvard grads were up to. Little did we know that their classmate, director Andrew Bujalski, was using Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, Bishop Allen’s two key members, for his filmic experiments — modern takes on Cassavettes’s realism — soon to be dubbed “mumblecore.” Bujalski’s two gushed-over films — 2005’s Funny Ha Ha and last year’s Mutual Appreciation — totalize the awkwardness of post-college life in oddly charming slice-of-life vignettes. Yet it’s notable how such gauche scenarios sharply contrast the breezy pop music that its actors have been producing. Still, both the band and the films share an idiosyncratic sense of the folly of youth.
But indie-film stardom is just one of the unconventional paths this band took. As the years dragged on, rather than release a follow-up to Charm School, the band opted to release a four-song EP each month of the year. The Broken String gleans the best from these EPs and adds three new tracks; the result is a kaleidoscope of Bishop Allen’s sharpened and much-matured songwriting.
A reworked version of “The Monitor” opens the record with the air of a statement of intent. More detail, a sharper stature, and lush orchestration permeates many of these reworked tracks, and “The Monitor” sets the tone. But this isn’t to say that the exuberance of Charm School has disappeared; “Rain,” one of the three new tracks here, retains the playful pop sensibility that made the debut such a toe-tapper. But the band’s new penchant for elegant and epic string-laced ballads returns on “Flight 180,” another re-arranged EP track; unexpected flamenco flourishes turn up on “Like Castanets”; and new Bishop Allen member Darby Nowatka coyly croons at the forefront of “Butterfly Nets.”
In fact, most notable about these re-worked versions is the vocals, now placed front and center in the mix. Although singer Rice’s charm lies in his everyman singing style, this worked better with the no-frills Charm School. Here it stands out in warbled contrast to the distinguished arrangements. Though definitive of the band’s aesthetic, this could be a flaw for some — but in that case, Bishop Allen probably isn’t up that alley. While managing to side-step both preciousness and predictability, The Broken String pulls together the long-anticipated and full-fledged follow-up that fans deserve, at the same time aptly defining where Bishop Allen is now: all over the map.
“Rain” MP3: http://www.scjag.com/mp3/do/rain.mp3