There’s a reason sophomore albums so often pale next to debuts, and it’s a little thing called time pressure. Brooklyn’s Bishop Allen know a thing or two about performing under these conditions.
Reportedly frustrated and seeking inspiration, the two principal songwriters undertook one of 2006’s more interesting musical experiments: writing, recording, and releasing one EP a month of new songs. While the songs weren’t all great, there were more standouts than the frequency of the releases should have yielded, and none of the songs were really bad. Enter The Broken String, the band’s second LP and the natural culmination of the EP project.
The Broken String plays like a greatest hits album, stacked deep with memorable highlights, corralling the gems from a year’s worth of monthly EPs into one 12-song disc. Like a good greatest hits album, it never feels like those doing the picking had to lower the standards or tack things on to fill out a weak selection, and like a greatest hits album from any band worth its salt, the biggest criticism to be found here is the failure to include certain songs. I personally miss the wonderful “The Same Fire” from the June EP, but the fact that fans I’ve talked to all have different “how-couldn’t-they” picks shows that this speaks more to the depth of quality material that Bishop Allen had to winnow down from than any missteps in selection. But what makes The Broken String more than a “greatest hits”-style compilation of the EPs’ best cuts, and at the same time justifies the purchase for those who already own the EPs, is the fact that all of the songs here are here in reworked, fuller new arrangements.
On first listen, some of the new versions seemed like clear improvements, expanding the basic feeling of the demos with new instrumentation and sounds, and others seemed like clear missteps, muddling the raw energy of the EPs with unnecessary melodrama and frills. It was telling, though, that the songs whose changes I most strongly disliked were the ones I’d listened to and loved the most on the EPs; with more spins, I grew to appreciate the re-recordings and the changes ranged from powerful, at best, to, at worst, unneeded but not detrimental. And regardless of the dressing applied to them, the songs themselves are pretty exceptional.
The strength of Bishop Allen’s songwriting lies in the band’s ability to imbue their songs with universal appeal. Any number of things can make a pop song good — a catchy melody, sweet production, memorable lyrics, vocals, mood, arrangement. But the greatest pop songs all capture to some degree a bittersweet tone, be it the sting of nostalgia or the breaking of a desperate hope or the quiet acceptance of losing at love. The sun may be coming, but the winter was long, cold, and lonely, and true love will find you only if you look for it — it’s a little funny, this feeling inside.
Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is probably the purest pop classic of this young century so far — nodding the deepest hip-hop heads right on through to the soccer moms everyone’s always so fond of citing in articles — and Cee-Lo sings of the sweetest desperation, that of being crazy in love and not giving a damn because there’s never really a choice to begin with. Some days the drums pop and the bass bounces as if it were tailor-made for dancing, and some days swirling strings sing sad in slippery swoons.
Bittersweet pop songs, inherently optimistic and uplifting in their melodic and sweet construction but wrapped in a contrasting unhappiness, appeal to everyone at every time. They sound happy when you are and sad when you aren’t. Bishop Allen seem to understand this balance well on The Broken String. Even the sweetest little doo-bop piano bounce like “The News From Your Bed” takes on the tone of a cathartic sing-along with close friends in its fuller arrangement, the piano painting happy shades and the words tinging it sad: “There’s a mouse in the cupboard that nibbles your crumbs / And you talk to him every night / You say ‘hey, Mr. Whiskers, I’m bored and I’m numb / You can stay if you just treat me right’.”
It’s this universality that leads me to recommend this album as strongly as I do. Whether you dance to the quick beat of “Rain” or you feel the prick of that little shake in the vocals of “Shrinking Violet”, you (meaning probably 90 percent of humanity) will like, if not love, this album if you hear it. I can think of no better recommendation for pop songs this good.