Bishop Allen’s last disc, The Broken String, was their “big backstory” album. Nevermind that it was their sophomore disc after a well-received debut, or that it was to be a marquee release for the burgeoning Dead Oceans label. The album was most notably the culmination of the band’s EP year. They released an EP every month for a year, and then picked out and re-recorded the best stuff for The Broken String. The resulting record was a great piece of pop music that solidified their spot as a top-tier indie band.
And now they’re back with Grrr…, the follow-up to the “big backstory” album. Smartly, the band steps out of the shadow of that last album by not trying to top themselves. While Bishop Allen has always had a pretty contained sound, The Broken String had moments that soared to epic heights or chugged with a full rock-band feel. But here, on Grrr…, the band strips down their sound to make some very basic, but very solid pop songs.
Though it feels a little scaled-down, Grrr… has no shortage of catchy hooks. Much of the album, and in particular the first half, is loaded with Justin Rice’s surgically infectious melodies. From the lilting verses and child-like calling on the choruses in “Dimmer” to the light noodling guitar that sneaks into “Oklahoma”, Bishop Allen once again gives us a batch of songs that are so fundamentally poppy that the sound seems both distinctly theirs and oddly universal.
But what sets the band’s songs apart from other pop bands is the charm of lead singer Rice. As on past albums, Grrr… succeeds most when he is being clever but not overly cute. “South China Moon” has verses sung in a wink-and-nod whisper, but the song works because the chorus Rice belts out rests on a simple but plaintive request to a lover. On “Dirt on Your New Shoes”, Rice steers the songs into tumbling choruses that work not because of what he’s singing, but rather how he’s singing. In that moment, his slight but sweet voice takes on a surprising size that helps the song rise to more than the sum of its few parts.
Where some songs work because Rice focuses on the most basic elements, others rise to the top because of the songwriter’s knack for everyday details. He illuminates shells lined up on a thread, or a note on the back of someone’s hand. It lets us past the melody and clever lyrics to see the bittersweet emotions behind them. “The Ancient Common Sense of Things” is one of the best tracks on the record, because it lets Rice make a grocery list of specific and perfectly rendered details, from notes bowed on violins to a clothespin hanging on a line. Similarly, “Cue the Elephants”, which subtly rises and swells to a size bigger than anything else on Grrr…, is populated by great lines like “The morning belongs to the grapefruit” that immediately put us in the song’s setting. On tracks like “Oklahoma” he shows his ability to use specific lines to his advantage. The mirror image syntax of a line like, “I’m a man I insist / you insist I’m a piece of cake,” not only fits the melody perfectly, but gives us a feel for the rift, however small, between these people.
As good as those moments are, sometimes Rice overplays his hand. When he sings “Olly olly oxen free” on “Dimmer” or sings a line like, “You’ve got eyes like Oklahoma,” it feels like he’s pressing. In these moments it is like he is aware of how cute he is, and he lays the charm on thick. But once you scrape that away, these lesser lines prove themselves to be nice-sounding but nonsensical.
Rice and company get it right on Grrr… far more than they get it wrong, so the album only has the occasional stumble and no big missteps. If there’s a complaint about the disc, it is that sometimes the band’s stripped-down approach slips into underachieving. “Tiger, Tiger” sounds a little simple to close the record, even with a slight touch of strings,. It unfortunately illuminates the album’s pretty uniform middle tempo. Simplifying things is fine, of course, and Bishop Allen does quite a bit with a little on Grrr…, but there are small moments when it feels like the band is putting a glass ceiling on these songs. But while in one way Grrr… feels like a modest effort from the band, it still performs an important task for a third album: driving home the band’s strengths and establishing this sound as something unequivocally theirs. And, flawed or not, it is an awful lot of fun.