_Grr..._ showcases Bishop Allen's simplistic indie-pop
The Brooklyn band returns to the basics on its third full-length album.
Mar. 16, 2009
Bishop Allen makes the kind of music that can make you instantly hate music critics. They play light guitar-driven indie rock that makes Vampire Weekend look hard in comparison. And they do it very well. But this can lead to those writing devices where their music is inevitably but inexplicably compared to frolicking in a meadow or spooning with a baby koala bear or something equally as nauseating. And if you take the opposite stance and rail against their musical pleasantries then it's like you're, well, railing against snuggling with an adorable baby koala. It's sort of a lose-lose.
For non-moviegoers, Bishop Allen is probably little more than a band name they've read in passing a few times on Stereogum. For the indie-movie enthusiast, the band has become a mainstay of the past seven years. Beginning with 2002's "Funny Ha Ha," the band's friendship with mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski gave band members a path into starring roles and musical exposure in a unique format. Bujalski's follow-up, "Mutual Appreciation," even featured vocalist Justin Rice as the lead singer of a fictitious band called The Bumblebees that just happened to play all Bishop Allen songs. More recently, the band was briefly featured in the musically enamored indie-kid buzz film of 2008: "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist."
This led many to the possibility of the next Bishop Allen album being the band's Shins-in-"Garden State" moment. But just as "Nick and Norah" was no "Garden State," this album will almost undoubtedly not give Bishop Allen the polarizing ubiquity Zach Braff gave The Shins.
This is not at all to discredit Grr.... It's a strong effort that showcases almost every element of what makes this band worthwhile: most notably Rice and Christian Rudder's ability to make intricately simplistic pop melodies. But this same phrase, intricate simplicity, might be the very reason Bishop Allen has not reached the pop-culture success of, say, fellow Ivy League alums such as the aforementioned Vampire Weekend.
Vampire Weekend obviously has a decent amount of layering and complication to their rhythms and percussion, but their songs themselves have always been fairly simple endeavors. The songs of Grr... can sometimes feel both too complicated and too simple for the masses all at once. Who else makes minimal pop constructions based on a G.K. Chesterson essay (see: "The Ancient Common Sense of Things")? This album is largely a musical return to their 2003 debut, Charm School. This means it's less dense and epic-sounding than their follow-up The Broken String, a calculated return to the basics. But the thing that differentiates Grr... from Charm School is the hooks. Although the band has made great strides in the execution and layering of its instrumentation and varied melodies since 2003, it made an effort to stray away from obvious over-the-top pop hooks. Understandable from a band that often shared the gift and curse of writing in such an infectious indie-pop way that makes everything they sing sound like a chorus.
But although "Dirt On Your New Shoes" and "South China Moon" have well-executed subtle choruses, they lack some of the pop sensibilities of Charm School staples, such as "Quarter To Three" and "Things Are What You Make of Them" that would have almost surely become indie mega-hits if the band had the audience potential it now possesses. And even though this negates a novelty-factor of an undeniably enjoyable album, it also potentially has the unfortunate side-effect of keeping such a worthy band on the fringes of larger success, if at least for another album.