Friday, March 13, 2009

"Dimmer" / Bishop Allen

It must have been 5 years ago now that the carpenter working on our apartment told me I had to get hold of Bishop Allen's debut album, Bishop Allen -- and just as he promised, our kids (pre-teens, then) loved it as much as we did. Of course, since then the kids have grown into indie-snob teenagers who wouldn't be caught dead listening to the same music as their parents. Oh, it's okay if we put Vampire Weekend on our iPods, so long as they get explicit credit for having found the band first. But admit that they actually like Robyn Hitchcock or Elvis Costello or Paul Weller or Nick Lowe -- those "old guys" who just happen to still be releasing records -- no way. They get apoplectic when I "out" them in front of their friends for having loads of Kinks and Beatles on their playlists.

So I imagine we will have to pretend that they were the ones who first heard about Bishop Allen. After all, these guys live in hipster Brooklyn, sell their music directly from their own website, challenged themselves to an EP-a-month project in 2006, and were featured in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. What better indie creds could you have?

A few days ago I was fretting over the opacity of the Shins' lyrics; Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, the two Harvard classmates who are the core of Bishop Allen, are too smart to think that incomprehensibility equals intelligence. There's enough riddling allusions in their songs, but at least you can tell what's going on. At the moment my favorite song on this new album Grrr... (released March 10) is something called "Tiger, Tiger," but since my preferences change hourly, let's talk about the album's opening track, a winsome little meditation on identity and impermanences that's easily available on their website.

"Am I dimmer every day?" Rice blurts out (I love songs that start right away with just a vocal), in that distinctively plaintive voice. "Am I just a little glimmer /Like a tiny bobbing head /Of an ocean swimmer?" That receding image, with its suggestion of drowning, nails the mild growing panic of this song. "Olly olly oxen free," he yelps: "Can you see me?"

So where is he disappearing from? It might be a love affair that's inexorably petering out; it might be Bush-era paranoia about having no political weight; it could be intimations of mortality. (Somehow I suspect these guys have read their Wordsworth.) Whatever it is, they're willing to go surreal with it: Verse two wonders, "Do I slowly get erased /As I slowly eat my dinner?, and verse three frets, "Am I shrinking, am I shrinking? /Can you recognize my thoughts? /Do you care what I am thinking?" For whatever reason, he's starting to feel faceless and inconsequential. Doncha just hate it when that happens?

Still, he's got hope -- the boppy pop melody is too cheery for despair. The motor of light drums and guitar, with some goofball marimbas in the middle-eight and flourishes of strings, signals irrepressible optimism. In the bridge, he accepts his role as a rebel misfit, with a metaphorical horse race going on: "I would choose the darkest horse /That's the horse I'd ride." Being the long shot makes his eventual victory all the sweeter, of course. ("You wouldn't need binoculars /You'd see it with your own two eyes.") And in the fourth verse, he wraps it up by imagining, "You see me now /But it takes a lot of squinting." Well, at least that's something.

I just read a review that described Bishop Allen's music as "Kinksian." Gadzooks, I thought -- am I that predictable? And now I see, it's so obvious -- the shade of campiness in Rice's vocals, the unorthodox instruments, the la-la-la embellishments, the deeply tuneful melodic line. But hey, comparing something to the Kinks just means that the writer thinks the songcraft is dead solid, and indeed it is.

Of course, once my kids hear that this sounds like the Kinks, they may not listen to Bishop Allen anymore -- not publicly, that is. Sshhhhh, don't let them know.

Dimmer sample

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