In 2006, Bishop Allen, a pair of Harvard grads transplanted from Boston to Brooklyn, caused a stir—especially, but not solely, online—by recording and self-releasing an EP for each month of the year. The project’s success was reflective not of its novelty, but of the innate strength of Justin Rice and Christian Rudder’s songwriting. They didn’t have time to be too fussy in the studio and the EP recordings are often bare-boned, raw in a way that seems to authenticate them. But the songs certainly weren’t dependent on this lo-fi framing. Of the twelve tracks on The Broken String, the band’s first album since their 2003 debut Charm School, nine are reworked versions from the EP project. With more time on their hands, Bishop Allen set out to create definitive versions of the best tracks that the venture produced. In a few cases, this has resulted in drastic alterations, but for the most part, they seem intent on rendering their original ideas in greater fullness. The changes are small amendments, additions scratched in with a fine-tipped pin.
The result is that the songs fit together better as a whole while retaining the elements that made them attractive in the first place. “Click, Click, Click, Click,” a meditation on ending up in the hallowed photographs of others, is indicative of this. It stays within the general outlines of the original recording, but still manages uncannily to increase its irresistibility. There is definitely a Ray Davies quality to the lyrics. A small snapshot of human experience—a wedding, as it happens—is looked at askew and pronounced in a voice both sympathetic and mildly satirical. The character is recognizable: a jester-sociologist outside of events while they are happening, making distinctive connections and reciting them to memory.
This voyeuristic narrator returns in “The Chinatown Bus,” with its altered chorus of “I, I am the passenger tonight/ I watch the world from inside.” But in this case, the bus ride provides the context for a series of ruminations on travels abroad, in Shanghai and Tokyo, weaved among memories of life at home. The separation of a passenger inside, watching, is aligned with the alienation of traveling, of being apart from the world that you are moving through. The track teems with the influences of wandering tunesmiths, not least among them the young Bob Dylan. But while the influence of iconoclasts from the past lies face-up in the lyrics, the music plays it down, covering the whole surface in a mélange that adds up to indie-pop.
“Flight 180” is, again, something of an idiosyncratic travelogue, this one recited thousands of miles off the ground. It rises from a subdued, confessional hum into a histrionic ruckus of strings, piano and feedback, as Justin Rice sings, “The man in the middle seat recites his timetables audibly/ but I know he means: if you feel like dancing, dance with me.” The track balances its overblown aspirations toward beauty and grandeur with a subtle wit and whimsical quasi-revelations. “Corazon,” the most tinkered with of the EP tracks, is given a similar reading. In its original form it was a stripped down, guitar, piano and drums affair. On The Broken String it begins with a whisper before ending easing into splendor, saturated along the way with diverse instrumentation. It recounts the band’s discovery of an exiled piano on the street and their attempts to resuscitate it. In fact, the found piano was part of the inspiration for the EP project, and “Corazon” one of its first tracks.
Both “Shrinking Violet” and “Choose Again” filter Americana influences into Bishop Allen’s own distinct vision of pop music. Rice’s ragged vocals are framed in weary arrangements, collections of darkness that are cut apart in the end, revealing a beleaguered optimism at the core of their work. Even better is “Like Castanets,” a fragile ballad woven through with South American travails. It achieves levity in the unmitigated way in which it’s presented, in the way Rice’s wearied/exuberant white boy vocals wind in and out of the drowsy melancholy of Latin-tinged horns. Like many other tracks on the album, it magnifies the thread of the narrative into a multifariously colored tapestry. This is one of the foremost qualities that make Bishop Allen more than just another band. In their music one detects the residue of life lived, of life bottled up in words and music.
The lyrics on The Broken String got to me more than almost any in the past few years. A lot of them have to do with traveling and it’s been about a year and a half since I lived in my own country. But more than that, they seem focused on the magnified scale on which people change when they are away from home, the density of the experiences had and the way that they resound through your life when you return to wherever you came from. Somehow, Bishop Allen manages to represent that, and not just that, but also the more minor scale, the process of everyday experience and change so native to human beings. On one of the new songs, a perfect summer song called “Rain,” Rice sings, “O let the rain fall down/and wash this world away/ or let the sky be gray/ cause if its ever gonna get any better/ it’s gotta get worse for a day.” Some people may find that slightly cliché, but I find it to be a fitting caption for the album. The songs are molded from experience—whether happy or sad, Bishop Allen vivifies them and imbues them with their rightful meaning.