At their best, Bishop Allen develop a time and a place through memorable hooks and high craft, but they just can't sustain it for the whole album.
Bishop Allen might have boosted their career with a stunt -- releasing an EP a month for a year in 2006 -- but by the time they pulled together their second full-length and Dead Oceans debut Bishop Allen & the Broken String they'd become a convincing indie-pop act. Founders Justin Rice and Christian Rudder were writing smart, catchy songs (so, fulfilling genre duties) with noteworthy aplomb and careful arranging. If Grrr... was a step down, it did like infectious capability, but it might have sacrificed a little personality in its twee. Rice and Rudder were careful in their sound and effective, but without the year of build-up and the energy residing in the previous album's long work on many songs, something just didn't click.
Now, five years later, the band's back to sneak in their latest album Lights Out just before summer's end, a fine time to play it even as road trip season winds down. When the album opens with a guitar hook that forecasts a movie trailer of young people running near a beach too cold to swim in while a twentysomething narrator says meaningful things, keep going. “Start Again” has all the bounce and brightness that the band can do so well while keeping the heart in it. The song's on the cusp of something yet undetermined. There's hope, but there's a feint at being realistic. The split, of course, suggests the internal openness of the narrator, and the probable success of romantic venture, heightened by knowledge of the slim possibility of failure.
All of which makes “Why I Had to Go” an unlikely but effective succeeding track. The “pretty song of leaving” staple of the genre appears here with all the verve of the album's opener, but with the dimming of the evening. The song pairing fixes the music at a certain age, when you share blankets with people you leave and are just figuring out how late to stay out before it matters how late you can stay out. The two songs nearly encapsulate that era and as a bittersweet glance back or a fancy of an imaginary future, they work well.
After that, the album drops off a little. It doesn't falter, but it's never as inescapable again. Closer “Shadow”, sung by Darbie Rice, makes for a gentle good-night as the evening winds down. It's pleasant and innocuous, but not enough. It plays more like an interlude than an end, and maybe suffers from its sequencing. There's something precious about it that doesn't work, even if the context of knowingly charming album.
Otherwise, the missteps are pretty few (“Hammer and Nail” makes for some sterile rock). Songs like like “Skeleton Key” and “Bread Crumbs” build breezy grooves around plump bass parts. “Give it Back” provides more drive while hinting just a bit a new wave, showing the band's flexibility within their sound, and “Black Hole” gives Darbie Rice a better showcase. On the upside, even at their worst, Bishop Allen write good pop songs, ideally for one last summer's drive.