My Favorite Albums of 2014Lights Out / Bishop Allen
Just when I was starting to feel sad that there hasn't been a new Bishop Allen album since 2009's Grrr -- lo and behold, the guys have come out with a new one, Lights Out. Memo to self: Do everything you can do to help promote under-the-radar bands like these, the antidote to the Justin-Bieberized mass-market conglomerate that is slowly strangling modern music.
But I digress.
Besides my well-documented penchant for pop singers with glasses, there's a lot to love here. Bishop Allen may have started out documenting the neuroses of first-date jitters, but on this album they've moved into fruitful new territory: the neuroses of keeping a long-term relationship going. If it's not quite yet #Music for Grown-ups, it's getting close.
Justin Rice's flat-tish vocals convey such a weariness with modern life, played against the uptempo jangle of the background. (Dig how back in the mix they keep those baffled vocals.) Those repeated "if's" tell us what a crossroads he's reached. She's misunderstood, he's sorry, but at some point he has to stop apologizing. "If I could give you the keys to the kingdom, I would," he offers, but she seems to have moved past that. "Start again" doesn't mean a fresh start for these two, it means her veering off to begin a new life -- and at some point, that begins to sound like a relief for him.
Smart as they are, these guys don't go overboard with the poetic lyrics, but there's still some deft songcraft, as in the sustained film imagery of "Play the song, roll the credits / Let it fade to black / Out of script, out of time, / And the scene is done." Sometimes all it takes is a repeated word: "Call a car, call a friend / If you can, call anyone." (Reminds me of John Hiatt's wrenching "What Do We Do Now?" -- "should we call the kids or call the cops?")
Subtlety like this is in short supply these days, and yet these guys produce it track after track. Nuanced songs like "Black Hole" ("all those years collapse in the tiniest of shrugs"), "Skeleton Key" ("Let the gates from their hinges swing with your skeleton key"), and the deceptively simple "Breadcrumbs" ("The only thing you ever leave me is breadcrumbs / The only place they never lead me is home") -- the finely calibrated wit goes on and on.
Musically, it's agreeably straightforward, which I also dig -- who says you have to wow everybody with your multi-world-hyper-sophisticated musicality? (Vampire Weekend, I'm watching you.) Sometimes all you need is a cool smart friend to lament your life woes with. Bishop Allen provides that service. I'm so happy they're still here.